Ag Instructor Vic Martin: Origins of common ag measurement terms

Great Bend Tribune
Published March 5, 2017

Where Did It Come From?

With all the “heavy” and concerning news across the board and in agriculture, maybe something a little less serious, a bit fun, and accidentally educational is in order.  There are many terms in agriculture and around food production.  Some still in common use while some are a bit archaic.  Let’s just tackle a few of them see how they came about and what they mean.

Bushel – A bushel goes back a little over a thousand years to the Norman Conquest of England.  It is originally a measure used in wine, ale, and grain.  Flash forward to the 19th Century and it was set to 80 pounds of pure water or 8 gallons.  Our bushel is a cylinder 18.5 inches in diameter and 8 inches tall.  For us today it is mostly a grain measure, sometimes fruits, and is related to a weight.  The standard weight for a bushel of hard red winter wheat is sixty pounds. 

Corn – For us corn denotes maize – popcorn dent corn, sweet corn.  However, more generally, it is the primary crop of a region.  This is why scientific names matter as each crop plant species has a unique scientific name.

Acre – An acre is 43,560 square feet which is kind of odd at first blush.  There is a lot here.  An acre is 1/640th of a square mile, a square mile is 640 acres.  In general, an acre was defined during the Middle Ages as the amount of land that could be plowed in one day with a yoke of oxen.  Over time English Monarchs defined it more exactly and during Queen Victoria’s reign, it was established as we know it today. 

Mile – Before we get to square mile, where did a mile come from?  Most of us know it is 5,280 feet in length.  The term actually goes back to ancient times and the Roman mile.  The Roman mile was 1,000 steps but only counting the left foot.  This was used to mark distance in uncharted areas and it’s easy to see that it wouldn’t be uniform for a variety of reasons.  So they worked to standardize it around 30 B.C.E.  So the step or pace was set at five feet.  Over time there were many miles that differed in distance.  Today, the few countries still using the mile as a standard use the agreed upon International Mile which is 1760 yards or 5280 feet. 

Square Mile – Not to be boring but an acre is a rectangle, remember you are plowing, and 640 acres worked out to one square mile which is 5,280 feet by 5,280 feet.

Hand – If you are around horses you notice their height at the withers is expressed as hands.  Today a hand is set at four inches so a horse sixteen hands high at the withers is sixty-four inches.  As the name implies it was the width of a male hand.   This actually dates back to ancient Egypt.  It was standardized at four inches by Henry VIII.