James Pinsky: Want to work from home? Join the district

James Pinsky


Some people are blessed to take one simple, focused and amazing path through life. I am no such person. Or so I thought.

This past week I spent three days and nights talking to, with and about conservation with the men and women of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts at our annual conference in Roanoke. This was my first one.

I went eager to learn how different and challenging this new group of people was from the military lifestyle I devoted all of my adulthood. I went to learn about how different and challenging it was going to be to succeed in a community I knew little about. I went thinking I was going to learn, evolve, and change.

Boy did I ever learn – that I was wrong.

Technically, the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is a private nonprofit association of 47 soil and water conservation districts in Virginia and is classified accordingly as a 501(c)(5). It is a voluntary, nongovernmental association of Virginia’s districts. The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and its Educational Foundation, a 501(c)(3), provide and promote leadership in the conservation of natural resources through stewardship and education programs. It coordinates conservation efforts statewide to focus effectively on issues identified by local member districts.

What I learned about Virginia’s soil and water conservation districts in Roanoke was far more personal, though.

The people who make up the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts aren’t much different from the groups I have gravitated to in the past. You see, soil and water districts are very small, tight-knit groups of passionate people who are incredibly dedicated to their community, their mission and of course each other. They also devote themselves with the absolute certainly that they will be overworked, underpaid and often, but not always, underappreciated. And, they all want to save the world.

That my friends sounds a lot like the military, although unique to soil and water districts, is the fact that most of them are built from generations of local folks, and this little fact makes most soil and water districts far more than a local conservation organization – it makes it a family, and I don’t mean family in the generic, feel-good, we’re all friends way. No, I mean fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. Chances are the soil conservationist a district sends out to talk to a farmer, school or business knows most everyone already, and has so since birth because he or she grew up there, and his or her parents grew up there, and his or her grandparents. Heck, that soil conservationist probably knows everybody’s dogs name too.

Why is this so important? After all, isn’t geographic diversity good? Yes, diversity is very good, but the value of having a staff made up of people who live, work and grew up in your district created a kind of trust, loyalty and faith only family can have. I can’t tell you how many times I have been out and about with our senior soil conservationist, Dana Gochenour, and run into her mother or even her grandmother. Another soil conservationist here at Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, Sam Truban, has a farm his parents own locally and have for quite a while. That kind of homegrown talent doesn’t just mean they know the land, trees and people they serve, but it means they aren’t going to do anything to their neighbor’s land they won’t do to their own because their customers soil, water and yes, home, is their soil, water and home.

What all of this means for folks like me, globetrotting would-be do-gooders who never stayed anywhere long enough to grow roots deep enough to sprout leaves, is we have the opportunity to see, share and experience the warmth, integrity and value of being part of a family-run organization that most soil and water districts seem to be. And, that makes working here feel like something every other job I ever had in my life never could – home.

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.