Iowa Learning Farms held its inaugural Beauty of Conservation Photo Contest in June and July. Entries came from across the state and as far away as Florida, and totaled more than 130 images from 56 individuals.
“The goal of this contest was to see how different people perceived and captured the beauty of conservation in photos,” says Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director. “The submissions ran the gamut from farm equipment and fields to wildlife and habitats, all documenting the diversity of the environment and how individuals see the world around them. Selecting the winning photos in each category was difficult because we received such high-quality entries.”
In adult and youth categories, the panel of judges selected the top four entries for prizes. In addition, a People’s Choice prize was awarded to the top vote-getter in each category through the ILF social media pages.
“We wanted to give the public a chance to weigh in on the entries and select their top choice in each age group,” Comito says. “The People’s Choice winners are both images of the natural beauty that is supported and promoted by the conservation efforts of many in our state.”
Adult category, first place
The top prize in the adult category was “Soybeans Planted Green Into Rye” by Ryan Heiniger of Burlington in southeast Iowa. Ryan is a prolific amateur photographer, noting that he always has his phone and regularly snaps pictures around the farm and outdoors.
Heiniger’s prize-winning photo depicts soybeans growing up through winter cereal rye. He says he chose the photo because it not only was a beautiful image, but also shows the progress of an experiment testing the concept of planting green, which could result in greater weed suppression around the cash crop while adding more carbon to the soil.
“I subscribe to the belief that we don’t own the farmland; we are just borrowing it from our children, and we have an obligation to preserve and improve it for future generations,” he says. “I felt this photo captured our efforts to make the land better and more productive.”
Heiniger works his fourth-generation family farm, which is principally operated by his father, in the Mississippi River bottoms of far southeast Iowa. The family has invested in conservation practices including prairie buffer strips, reserving lands through the Conservation Reserve Program’s wetland restoration food plots for wildlife. Heiniger, a career wildlife conservationist, continues to explore and advocate for additional measures to improve soil health and maintain the value of the land.
“We raise corn, soybeans, hay and a few head of cattle on farmland that is nearly table flat,” Heiniger says. “I’ve been working to expand cover crops on our farm to prevent wind erosion and soil runoff from snowmelt and major downpours. The wet conditions of 2019 prevented planting in some fields and offered the opportunity to experiment with cover crops such as winter cereal rye and oats. I appreciate my dad’s willingness to try something new, and we are pleased with the results. Participating in this contest was a fun way to show what we’ve accomplished.”
Youth category, first place
Ian Spry, a freshman at Ames High School in Iowa, submitted a photo titled “Great Blue,” which was selected for the first prize in the youth category.
Upon learning of the contest, Spry headed to Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames to shoot photos. Ada Hayden is a reclaimed quarry, which features a lake, extensive wetlands and prairie restoration that hosts a broad range of wildlife and plant species.
“To me, having a place like Ada Hayden park so close to home and with such a variety of birds, animals, insects and fish is a great example of how conservation can provide a way to see things in their natural habitats,” Spry says. “As I was taking a picture of a painted turtle, I noticed the great blue heron wading along the shore and was able to capture it with my camera.”
Spry has a passion for birds and says he was excited to see the heron, as well as many other species during his photo safari. He also mentioned that he framed the photo to show the bird in motion, depicting where it was going, perhaps a metaphor for empowering nature to thrive through conservation.
“I’ve learned about the importance of wetlands as habitat and how they function to improve water quality,” Spry says. “I’m not sure it would have been as easy to see and photograph so many different things if people weren’t supporting conservation efforts.”
People’s Choice winner
The photograph that received the most votes in the adult category was “Pollinator Restoration at Sunset in Crawford County,” submitted by Colleen Rossiter from Westside, Iowa. Rossiter lives on an acreage near her father’s farm and helps manage 120 acres that has been enrolled in CRP for over five years.
“The photo defines a prairie atmosphere with an element of calm and an element of Iowa,” Rossiter says. “It’s home.
“Conservation is very important to me and my family. We believe it is important to consider what can be done to benefit wildlife and help rejuvenate soil biology while reducing runoff and erosion.”
During one of their regular visits to the CRP fields, Rossiter and her husband were driving through the field when she noticed the scene in the photo and asked him to stop the vehicle. “I’ve always been able to see things in ways that others may not notice, and when I saw the sun in a certain position, I knew I could get a great picture,” she says. “I have this photo printed on metal and hanging on my office wall. I took it with a cellphone, but the quality is excellent, and it’s fun to be out there and be able to snap a picture so easily.”
Rossiter is an Iowa State University graduate with a degree in human and family services. She thought the contest provided a fun opportunity to let Iowans share their perspectives. “Conservation means something different to everyone, and anything that makes people more aware and gives them an opportunity to think about it is positive,” She says. “And in these COVID-19 times, it is a great way to encourage people to enjoy nature and get out to see the environment.”
The photograph garnering the most People’s Choice votes and winner in the youth category was submitted by Annaliese Kamps, a fourth grader at Rock Creek Elementary in Ankeny, Iowa. Titled “A Break in the Prairie,” the photo was taken in a little patch of wildflowers she found during a nature walk.
Kamps says the photo reminds her of her great-grandmother who recently passed away because she had always loved dragonflies and butterflies. Photography is a recently adopted hobby for her. Her mother noted that in trying out different activities during the springtime school furlough, Annaliese found her love of photography.
“I like to be out in nature because I like all wildlife and love animals a ton,” Kamps says. “Conservation is important because it makes better habitat for wildlife and makes it possible for us to enjoy nature and the outdoors.”
Kamps has spent time this summer shooting some 2,000 pictures, learning about photography through self-study and under the guidance of her grandfather. She is a triplet, but her mother says she has gravitated to photography much more strongly than her siblings and has shown that she has a good eye for finding photo subjects. She has also taken pictures of the night sky and tried her hand at firework photography.
Looking forward to next contest
“The Beauty of Conservation Photo Contest was an unmitigated success. We are already thinking ahead to the next opportunity to invite people to share their images and ideas about conservation,” Comito says. “This contest is one of several new initiatives ILF launched in 2020, so it could continue to engage with Iowans and pursue its education and outreach mission, despite the unexpected circumstances we all faced.
“We encourage anyone interested in conservation, water quality and natural resources in Iowa to follow our progress and join in the next photo contest, webinar or virtual field day from ILF,” she says.
Staudt is program manager for Iowa Learning Farms and director of Water Rocks.