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Running the marathon of conversation

By Emily Zimmerman

People running in a marathonI am a runner. I have run 5Ks and marathons. I have run on icy winter afternoons and I have run on humid summer mornings. I have run through grief and pain, through joy and triumph, and through calming stillness. Running has been a consistent part of my life for as long as I can remember, and though my commitment to running sometimes wans and falters, I always come back to that rhythmic and welcoming sound of my feet hitting the pavement. You see, running is a methodical progression for me, a path forward. Sometimes this path forward is marred with obstacles, and just lacing up my shoes is a feat that initially feels insurmountable. Days like these the miles drag like weights, and the progress, the path forward, is difficult to see; the progression feels like it has all but stopped. But, even in those darkest of days, when I feel like hanging up my running shoes and bowing my head in defeat, I always return to the way I feel when I’m running – the way I am methodically and systematically progressing, moving forward toward a goal, no matter how small or how large.

Like many runners, the way I approach running carries into other pieces of my life. It is woven into the threads of my personal relationships, my other passions, and my work. My friends and colleagues will likely attest to the logical and methodical way that I process information; no matter if it is an issue weighing on my heart or my mind, it is always a progression. Sometimes this can be maddening because I mull in an indecisive and often circular fashion, carefully weighing and evaluating my possible steps forward. And, I’ll admit that there have been more than a few times when my tinkering and toying has left me on a backward slide, down a steep slope lined with obstacles and challenges that I hadn’t foreseen. Emerging from these missteps takes me time, but after sorting out my mistakes and coming to terms with some of those tinted moments, I eventually again begin my methodical forward progression – just as I do in running.

As a graduate student, I study how strategically locating conservation practices (e.g., grassed waterways, riparian buffers, wetlands, etc.) in agricultural landscapes can encourage the production of a diverse suite of services (e.g., production of food, fuel, fiber; clean water; pollination; wildlife habitat; etc.) provided by our farm fields. Installing conservation practices on the landscape is not a new or novel concept, but rather one that has been present for nearly 85 years. Beginning with the passing of Public Law 74-46 in 1935, Congress recognized that poor soil management practices on farm and grazing lands was jeopardizing the Nation’s ability to produce agricultural goods, and so it created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS; eventually renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS), to demonstrate the Nation’s commitment to the conservation of our soil and water resources. Though the methods and objectives of conservation have shifted over the past 85 years, the overarching goal of the marathon of conservation has always been the same: to conserve our resources while producing agricultural goods.

Emily after a marathonAnd here, within my work, I return to the way I approach running. According to the Environmental Working Group, in the past 20 years of our marathon, we have invested over $38 billion in conservation programs aimed at reducing erosion and cleaning up our water; yet, little has changed. We’re in mile 20 of our marathon, and our progression forward toward the finish line has all but stagnated.  In fact, recent data has shown that we may be sliding backward: between 2007 and 2012, enrollment in several conservation programs in Iowa declined by 744,674 acres. We’re losing conservation practices on the landscape, and our waters are just as dirty as ever, polluted with nutrients and sediment from our fields. The effects of this can be seen clearly in the increasing cost of removing nitrate from our drinking water, the sediment leaving our fields, and the large Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Though these efforts may have made initial progress, it is clear that if we are to successfully finish our marathon, we’re going to have to turn around and begin methodically putting one foot in front of the other again.       

While training for my first marathon, a fellow runner said to me, “Anyone can run the first 20 miles. It’s the last 6.2 that will make you.”  So here it is; we’re in the last 10K of our run, and we have to own up to our fatigue and challenge disappointing trends to achieve our goal. It’s time for that final push. Whether through voluntary, regulatory, or market-based action, we must begin to make real and measurable progress toward cleaning up our agricultural act to reach that primal smell of healthy soil, that welcoming sound of bees buzzing and birds singing amongst the crops, and the beauty of crystal clear water in our streams. So, lace up your shoes. Let’s get moving! What are you waiting for?  

The photo at the top of the page is of the author "running" with her dad in a marathon at age 3. The photo at the bottom of the page is of the author at the finish of a recent marathon.