Nature Photographer Carl Kurtz

Nov 15, 2012  | 5 min  | Ep 206

If you see Carl Kurtz combining from a distance, you probably wouldn't think anything of it.  Get a little closer and you might wonder what it is he's harvesting.  His cash crop is unusual for Iowa in that it doesn't involve corn or soybeans.  Kurtz has turned his farm into a prairie and what he harvests every fall are its seeds. 

Kurtz: Instead of a monoculture you have what would by a polyculture and it is a perennial polyculture.  And we probably get about 50 different species in that harvest each year.  And it's very interesting and very different.

After taking over the family farm, Kurtz raised conventional crops for ten years before planting parts of it in prairie in 1988.  It took four years after that before he could harvest and begin selling prairie seeds.

Kurtz: I did traditional crops for a number of years but because we were a pretty small operation I came to the conclusion that if I kept that up I was going to go broke.  And we started really small.  Any business if you start small your risks are much lower.  So we started with an acre and now we have about 150 acres of area that is in some form of prairie.

The prairie, for the most part, plants itself every year so Carl avoids the costs of planting each spring and his other expenditures are low.  That helps him turn a profit.  But like nature, business is often cyclical.

Kurtz: When corn was $1.00 a bushel and beans were $3.00 we were doing really well.  And, of course, the high price of corn and beans has taken a lot of conservation land out of existence. And, of course, that has affected the demand for prairie seed.

Like all crops, weather has an effect on Kurtz's harvest.  Plants germinate at different times depending on how wet, dry, cool or hot it is.  It affects what seeds are there at the time he combines.  And like farmers across the state his harvest has to be dried before it is bagged and sold.

Kurtz: We put it in long rows and then we turn it until it gets really, really dry so that we can bag it and then it will be bagged usually about three weeks after harvest.  I really like prairie, just fascinating.  It's a very complex plant community that is self-sustaining and it is fun to work in it because if you like flowers they start blooming in April, the end of April, early May and they're still blooming in October.  So you'll have flowers blooming all summer.  It is great as bird cover.  Certainly if there was more prairie we'd probably have more pheasants.  But a lot of song birds use the prairie and then there would be mammals in it.  They're all part of that whole system.  Besides the fact that it is good for watershed protection, good for soil protection and it's just great to go out and walk around in it and to work in it.  It's just a great community. 

Besides being a farmer, Kurtz is also an author and has written a practical guide to prairie reconstruction where he outlines the procedures and problems involved in reintroducing diverse prairie communities to the landscape.  He has also penned Iowa's Wild Places.  The book is a collection of his photographs and person observations of Iowa's natural wonders and the basis for a 1996 Iowa PBS documentary.

Kurtz: Initially I think I started out photographing because I hunted.  If you're a hunter in a sense it is an excuse to go out and experience nature.  And so if you trade the gun for a camera then you have that excuse year round.  It's not just a seasonal thing.  And then I could see that this was an opportunity to help most of the general public to gain an appreciation for nature.

At the time of the documentary, Kurtz was shooting photographs on 4x5 film with an old portrait camera.  But all things change with time and today he uses a digital camera.

Kurtz: People are taking great stuff on iPhones.  This is better than that, of course, it's got more capability and interchangeable lenses give you the opportunity to shoot wildlife.  So lots easier, a lot more fun.

What Carl takes pictures of has also changed.  He still likes photographing sweeping environments but he is also looking for fine details within different environments.  His hope, however, has been a constant in that his photographs will motivate and inspire others to look around and enjoy all the natural things that can be found right here in Iowa.

Kurtz: Photography is not a substitute, it's just a way to encourage people to go out and explore the world that's out there.