It’s time we take a measure of things

Published 5:50 pm Saturday, October 6, 2018

By Terry Rector

A childhood country music album left me with one of those tunes that stay in the brain for life. It was a Cowboy Copas recording with a stanza about some low-lifes who burglarized a corn field. The recurring silly lines go:

Some folks say a tramp won’t steal, but I caught three in my cornfield

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One had a bushel, another had a peck

One had roasting ears tied around his neck

At the time I knew a bushel was a basket for picking purple hull peas.  I knew nothing of a peck other than it rhymed with “neck.” I now know a peck is one fourth of a bushel.

As a measure, a bushel is a certain volume; eight U.S. dry gallons or 2150.42 cubic inches. Its use goes way back in time in Europe where it was used for measuring agricultural produce.  And today here in the USA, “bushel” is still a major marketing term. It is the written and spoken measure of most grains like wheat, corn and soybeans. But these crops are not really measured by volume. They are measured by weight and the weight is converted to bushels on paper to facilitate sales, crop reports and commodity futures trading.

It works like this; a farmer delivers a load of corn to a local grain elevator. The entire load is weighed and divided by 54, which is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s designated pounds of soybeans in a bushel. The price paid is expressed in a “per bushel” amount. Likewise, the assigned weight per bushel for wheat is 58 pounds and for soybeans it is 54. These weights are for one grade, U.S. No. 2, because that is the standard so everybody will be on the same page when buying and selling. Official weights are a tad higher for U.S. No. 1 and less for No. 3 and No. 4. But the grains are not measured by volume, merely assigned a volume in bushels based on weight.

Cotton has always been picked, sold and resold in pounds.  Bales are for holding the cotton lint together for transport from the gin on thru to spinning. There are 480 pounds in an “official” bale, but no two bales weigh the same.

Some crops are marketed and spoken of in terms of only weight without volume references. Rice marketing uses only weight these days, measured in hundred pound increments, or hundredweights, although rice still has an assigned bushel weight of 60 pounds. As a Louisiana native, I recall when rice in the southwest corner of the state referenced rice in terms of barrels, a barrel weighing 162 pounds. Bushels and barrels are now rice history.

Milk we buy by the gallon or half gallon is initially marketed and processed by weight, not gallons.  Dairy farmers are paid by the hundredweight of milk and it stays in weight units right up until it goes in the jugs.

From forests, pulpwood has long been sold by weight only.  Even some saw timber is now weighed up to determine value.