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What effect do topography and elevation have to do with clean food?

written by

Marie Reedell

posted on

January 9, 2023

Let’s imagine your last trip to a farm. Why did you go there? What sights, sounds, and scenes do you recall? Now picture that same farm - but from 3,000 feet above. What would change? What could - or couldn’t - you see? 

If you’ve ever flown across the country and had access to a window seat, you’ve likely seen hundreds of farms from this view. Many of them look, well, fairly unremarkable. Flat yellow or green squares, spanning for hundreds of miles, the animals and farms far too small to see. This doesn’t mean that these farms are actually unremarkable, but that from high up, many tend to look the same. 

But Burke’s Garden Farm is different. If you were looking down from high above, you wouldn’t see a flat square blending in with its surroundings. Instead, you’d see a bowl-shaped crater, encircled by the jagged edges of mountains rising above the valley. You might think it looks like someone just pressed on the earth, as if they were making a thumbprint cookie. After all, that’s the moniker often given to Burke’s Garden: “God’s thumbprint”. 

You’d probably notice, while looking down, not just the shape but the location: a place that’s seemingly higher than most farms, tucked away within the mountains. And you’d be right - the farm is situated just over 3,000 feet above sea level. And then there’d be the shockingly green valley, so different from the dull greens, yellows, and browns that color most farms seen from a bird’s-eye view.

That’s, at least, what you’d see. But are these differences important? How do they actually affect your food? 

Although topography and elevation aren’t often discussed in conversations about farming, they have a significant impact on the lives of animals and the quality of food that ends up on your plate. When you’re raising 100% grass-fed beef, the topography of the land actually matters a lot. The quality of the land, after all, influences the quality of the beef that’s produced. 

So let’s dig in. What effect do topography and elevation have at Burke’s Garden? 

Picture again Burke’s Garden Farm in your mind (or better yet, look it up!) - that bowl-shaped crater in the earth. Now imagine soil at the top of that crater, tumbling down. How do you think that soil would move? Why? 

Valleys like Burke’s Garden tend to be incredibly fertile places - places with dark, rich soils brimming with organic matter, with the potential for a high water table. This has to do with the way that soil shifts in a valley. Soil at the top, over time, makes its way down the slope of the valley. This means that nutrients at the top of the valley are lost. But because the soil is continuously moving down the slope, the soil on hillsides tends to be shallow and lacking in development or rich organic life. Instead, the soil settles on the floor of the valley, becoming enriched by additional deposits, rainfall, and the accumulation of organic matter. 

The fertility on the valley floor allows plant life to flourish. For grass-fed cattle, that means there is an abundance of grass that also has deep nutritional value. The dark, rich soil is brimming with minerals and vitamins the cows need - which are then passed through their bodies and deposited back onto the land. The land and animals, working together, create further enrichment. And the animals, feasting on this forage, develop meat that has quality taste and superior nutrition. 

Elevation also impacts the nutritional quality of grass-fed beef. High-altitude grasses experience higher solar radiation levels, or more exposure to sunlight. This leads to increased photosynthesis and more effective growth. But changes to altitude can also influence how well cattle digest their food, and therefore absorb their nutrients. Studies have shown that high-altitude grass is easier for cattle to digest, thereby allowing them to retain a higher concentration of nutrients from their forage. This, in turn, results in lean beef that is higher in protein and essential nutrients. 

Of course, these geographic qualities still rely on responsible land management. Our practices enhance the natural fertility of the valley, seeking to build more life both above and below the soil. For us, “God’s thumbprint” isn’t just a nickname. It’s a reminder of the responsibility we have toward such a special place. 

Have you ever visited Burke’s Garden Farm? What do you remember - and what makes it stand out from other farms? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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