From the Hill to the Farm: Meet Solano County’s newest Farmbudsman

November 03 2017

By Dom Pruett, DPruett@TheReporter.Com, @dompruett on Twitter

Posted: 10/28/17, 5:55 PM PDT | Updated: 3 days ago

Sarah Hawkins used to advise politicians in the United States Senate as a policy aide for the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Now, she’s the top agricultural advisor in Solano County, having recently taken on the role of Farmbudsman for the county.

The University of California, Davis alumna takes over for Michelle Stephens, who had been in charge of the program since its inception in 2013.

Entrusted to serve as a liaison between Solano County agricultural businesses and the local government, the Farmbudsman’s objective is to help develop value-added agricultural projects in the county, by acting as an advisor to local farmers and ranchers.

For Hawkins, her background provides her the necessary skills and experience for the position.

A native of Danville, Hawkins’ affinity for science and politics is due in large part to her parents.

“My step-dad was a research scientist, mom worked in human resources,” she explained. “So my step-dad really pushed science and my mom really pushed history and society. It was a good upbringing.”

While at San Ramon Valley High School, Hawkins, a self-described “policy wonk,” pursued her political ambitions, volunteering for local campaigns, in addition to participating in the youth development organization, 4-H, and volunteering at the Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek.

Shortly after beginning at UC Davis, Hawkins was a declared biology major, however, the endeavor didn’t last long.

“Some of the math tripped me up a little bit,” she laughed. Instead, Hawkins majored in political science and public service, while minoring in psychology.

After graduating from college in 1998, Hawkins moved to Washington D.C., where she worked for the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works under the committee’s chairman, John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island.

“Running into Senators in the hallways was like meeting rockstars for us wonk types,” Hawkins recalled.

In 2000, after Chafee died, Hawkins went to work for the non-profit organization, American Rivers in a web design position. The gig lasted only a year, however, and Hawkins soon found herself in need of a job once again. In 2001, with her step-dad battling multiple sclerosis, Hawkins decided to move back to California and accepted a job in line with her political background, as a County Supervisor position for Contra Costa County. Though she relished the opportunity to learn the inner workings of local politics, Hawkins soon sought a new challenge: soap making.

Two years after she and her husband purchased a rural five-acre home in Vacaville, where the two began breeding goats, Hawkins set her sights on making money off of the animals.

“I thought, maybe I can turn this into a business,” she said.

Now a businesswoman, Hawkins began selling her soaps and other handmaid skincare products at local farmers markets. Despite experiencing quick success, soon, as more competitors entered the markets, Hawkins saw her profits begin to shrink.

“There’s a finite demand for handmade skin care products in any given farmers market,” she explained. “We began getting less money for the same amount of effort.”

Citing how she began to miss working in policy, Hawkins became a member of the Solano County Agriculture Advisory Committee and was one of the founders of Solano Grown, a 501 (c)(6) organization, devoted to promoting Solano County products.

As luck would have it, an even greater opportunity presented itself to Hawkins after Stephens stepped down from her post as Solano and Yolo County Farmbudsman.

“I like learning new things,” explained Hawkins. “I thought: I’ve got the goat thing down. I’ve got the soap thing down. So let’s take on a new challenge.”

“When I looked at the requirements for what they were looking for, I told myself, ‘If I’m not qualified for this, I’m not qualified for any job.’”

Hawkins was offered the position, taking on the role as the county’s leading figure in agriculture, while also tending to her farm. The heavy workload has left Hawkins and her husband with little time for rest and relaxation, but Hawkins isn’t complaining, as she fully understands the importance of her job.

“I’m here to help any agriculturally-based business get through the startup process,” she said. “Help them work with the regulators, tell them where they can find loans, and show them how to move forward. It’s about giving the farmer the bigger picture of what their options are, and providing them answers so they don’t have to do the research on their own.”

Still a policy wonk at heart, Hawkins is focused on ways of improving the agricultural community in Solano County.

“My goals are to help the economic lives of farmers in this county,” she said. “I want to increase the economic sustainability here by growing jobs as well as retaining them.”

“Agriculture is very important in this county,” Hawkins added. “You’ve got to have a good local source of food, because I really believe that food security is national security.”