First, the plan was for this column to hopefully address what was in the new Farm Bill. Well, Congress has admitted that won’t be happening anytime soon so let’s examine where some common words used in agriculture came from. While the majority of the world has switched to the metric system of weights and measures, we have stubbornly clung to centuries old terms. The exception is in the area of farm machinery where much of the equipment used is made and/or sold overseas so there metric is the rule. Perhaps a major reason many of us past a certain age have clung so tightly to the “English” system is that we can understand what an acre or a bushel is as opposed to a hectare or metric ton. So where did these terms come from?
• Acre – First an acre is 43,560 square feet which sounds big but it is actually a square approximately 208 feet a side. It is 1/640 of a square mile. An acre in the Middle Ages was the amount of land that could be plowed in one day using a yoke of oxen (22 yards X 220 yards).
• Mile – Today this is 5,280 square feet but the mile’s history is complex. The Roman mile was used by their military and was one thousand paces (they would mark every thousand paces in strange territory). Naturally a pace can vary but this mile was approximately 5,000 feet. This was used long after the fall of the Western Empire but modified in various parts of Europe. The statute mile we use today was established in England by Parliament in 1593 and was important in surveying estates and property.
• Gallon – The gallon originated as a way to measure wine and beer in England and a gallon of wine was typically larger than a gallon of ale. And in our country until fairly recently we had a dry gallon (a volume) for grain and it was 1/8 of a bushel.
• Bushel – A bushel is four pecks or eight gallons. It is a volume but in agriculture we think of it as a weight. For example, an ideal bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds. It was originally a volume of grain developed during the middle ages.
• Potash – Potash is the commonly used name for potassium fertilizers. It denotes a salt, or water soluble form, of potassium fertilizer. This term has its roots in colonial America. One derivation is that as colonists settled North America, they had to clear the forests to grow crops. The felled trees were placed in large holes dug in the ground and burned. Ground in Great Britain had been farmed for millennia and was nutrient poor. They found after burning, the tree residue could be applied to the ground and would improve crop yields. The colonists needed “stuff” and had little to trade initially. They found they could trade the burned trees to Europe for what they needed. The hole they burned the trees in was termed a “pot” and the treed residue was “ash” – potash. Later it was found the primary nutrient in the ash was potassium.
It is said that every day you should learn something new. Hopefully this is one of those days.