Iowa farmer shows conservation and economics go hand in hand


By Kate Hansen and Kayla Bergman, former staff members

Mark Tjelmeland can trace his interest in conservation back to his childhood. When he was a young boy, Mark’s mother peaked his curiosity in natural resources by taking him to a field that was being tiled. She showed him the topsoil, subsoil, and explained why topsoil depth differed between locations on their farm.

A few years later, as a sixth grader, he was taught a soil and water conservation unit that furthered his interest in the topic. These two events deeply resonated with Mark, and he has been committed to conservation and climate efforts ever since.

Mark, a part of the Center for Rural Affairs’ climate work, and his wife Connie, have been farming for almost four decades, and haven’t been afraid to try new things in their operation. 

Perhaps their most unique endeavor was raising a flock of more than 700 chickens, which were pastured on a 17-acre reconstructed prairie on their farm located just west of McCallsburg, Iowa.

“Having the chickens on the prairie had a variety of environmental benefits, including attracting insects and pollinators,” Mark said.

After 20 years of selling eggs to nearby stores and markets, the Tjelmelands retired their egg operation. Today, they produce corn, soybeans, oats, and hay with an extended rotation system.

Over the years, Mark and Connie have prioritized our natural resources and climate through various conservation practices. Along with extended rotation, they have established five acres of pollinator habitat with 70 species, seeded grassed waterways, done minimum tillage, conducted late spring nitrate testing, and side-dressed nitrogen on his corn, among other things.

Many of these practices were established or expanded through enrollment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program. Mark also serves as a Story County soil and water conservation district commissioner. 

Mark sees renewable energy as another important part of his role in addressing climate change. He installed solar panels to generate energy for his home and farm. 

For Mark, the benefits of conservation practices are tied directly to climate. 

“I am concerned about the ways that changing climate will affect my grandchildren and future generations,” he said. “I see conservation practices as a moral choice, but also a practical one.”

The farmer said conservation is also good for his economics.

“Conservation practices have saved me money in the long run, and I wish more farmers were aware of how conservation practices could benefit their operations,” Mark said.

He encourages any farmer to reach out to the Center for Rural Affairs and other organizations to learn more about conservation, and how they can implement their own practices.

Since that passion was sparked when Mark was a curious young child, he has committed much of his life and business to conservation. With an increased urgency to address climate change in recent years, Mark’s efforts illustrate that doing what is right for our planet can also be a smart, economic choice for an operation’s success.

Feature photo: Mark Tjelmeland, who has been farming for four decades with his wife, hasn’t been afraid to try new things in his operation. One of the most unique endeavors was raising a flock of more than 700 chickens on a reconstructed prairie. | Photo by Kayla Bergman