Boxes of butter and the metric system

Box of Kroger butter

How much butter in a “box” according to the Department of Agriculture? More than you might think. Keep reading.

It’s fall again here in sunny New Mexico. It’s also time for the annual selling of massive amounts of green chile for which my state is famous. I wrote back in 2015 about the fact that you can still buy green chile by the bushel here.

Apparently, it’s not the only agriculturally based measure still used within the farming community when it goes almost directly to the consumer without repackaging. Not long ago I stopped at the local farmer’s market and bought some peaches. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw the paper bag contained the produce quantity that was labeled as ½ peck.

1/2 Peck on a bag

Notation on a bag of recently purchased peaches at a farmer’s market.

Had I not been able to see for myself how many peaches I was buying at the time, I would have had no idea what the volume of a peck could have been. A few days later I realized that the large boxes of chiles the grocery store were selling was also only listed by the bushel. (For the record, a “general” bushel is equivalent to 64 U.S. pints while a peck is the equivalent of 8 U.S. quarts. Ironically, the source I got this information from, Leico.com [which is a new collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press], doesn’t even use the same base measurements so you also have to know that there are two pints in a quart so there are 64 pints in a bushel and 16 pints in a peck…) Confusing.

When I go to the grocery store, I normally only buy produce by the item, ounce, or pound. Bushels and pecks aren’t volumetric measures I normally use at Kroger or elsewhere.

pamphletThat got me curious about other agricultural products that I might not normally use. After a bit of research, I came across a publication put out by the Department of Agriculture called “Weights, Measures, and Conversion Factors for Agricultural Commodities and Their Products.” (Agricultural Handbook Number 697). The 71-page document is dated 1992, but it was the most recent one I could find, so I used it for this post.

The document numerous lists of units described in all their gory detail. Sure, some are familiar to most of us, but it also includes long tons (1.016 947 metric tons) and short tons (0.907 185 metric tons).

But it gets even more fun since bushels are different sizes depending on the commodities measured.

  • Wheat, white potatoes, and soybeans use a 60-pound bushel;
  • Shelled corn, rye, sorghum grain, and flaxseed use a 56-pound bushel;
  • Barley, buckwheat, and apples use a 48-pound bushel.

Not only that but for some reason, there are both 32- and 38-pounds bushels of oats!

oats

Huh? Two different bushels of oats?

Plus, once you wrap your head around that there is also a carton of artichokes (23 pounds/10.4 kg), the sack of topped beets (25 pounds/11.3 kg)—unless you’re talking about a sack of beans, which then contains 100 pounds or 45.4 kg.

Broomcorn (and it notes there are 6 bales per ton) is 333 pounds per bale or 151 kg. However, don’t get this confused with Broomcorn seed which is sold by the bushel and can be anywhere from 44-50 pounds (20-22.7 kg) according to the brochure. I love precision, don’t you?

Let’s not forget butter, which is sold by the box, of 68 pounds or 30.9 kg.

Gallons aren’t treated much better. A gallon of castor oil is 8 pounds (3.6 kg), but a gallon of corn syrup is 11.72 pounds (5.3 kg).

Then there is the lug, which for Western grapes 28 pounds or 12.7 kg, but if you are measuring avocados, that lug is 12-15 pounds or 5.4-6.8 kg.

There are more complications, of course, like the 7/10-bushel carton of Texas oranges (40 pounds), while Florida oranges are sold by the 4/5-bushel carton (40 pounds). But the California and Arizona oranges are sold by the carton of 38 pounds.

I can only imagine the politics of how this came to be.

Hopefully, I’ve now made my point which is: our current system of gallons, bales, bushels, pecks, boxes, cartons, and lugs, plus our ounces, pounds, cups, quartsteaspoons, tablespoons, and pints, (and I didn’t even get to the bag, barrel, pocket/bag, hogshead, case, crate, and bin) is just crazy and the fact that some argue our current system is easier can only be offered by someone who is unaware of our current, deeply flawed units.

That said, just made sure if you send someone to the store for a box of butter, the person won’t return with 30.9 kg (69 pounds) of it.

See you next month when I’ll have a call to action regarding our government and the metric system. Maybe you can help.

Thanks for staying tuned.

Linda

The ‘Argument of Twelves’ and the Metric System

The fact that we have 12 inches in a foot isn’t a good reason to reject the metric system. Image from arielrobin on Pixabay.

(Sorry for the long lag between posts. I had some things going on in my life that required my full attention. Things are pretty much back on track. Thanks for your patience.)

Awhile back I was fulfilling my role as a scientist ambassador at the Bradbury Science Museum here in Los Alamos, NM. (This mostly consists of setting up various measurement activities and chatting with visitors about the advantages of the metric system for a couple of hours on the occasional Saturday.)

One day I realized that a man was starting to pace back and forth in front of me. Even though I wasn’t yet done prepping and I sensed this gentleman was about to go on the attack, I went ahead and said, “People are dying in this country because we don’t use the metric system in this country.”

“I don’t believe you,” he replied.

Even the Centers for Disease Control recommends strict use of metric units for liquids. (Pills are measured in grams, or a fraction thereof, already.)

I then handed him the 2016 Top Ten Patient Safety Concerns for Healthcare Organizations report put out by ECRI [Emergency Care Research Institute]. Number seven on the list: “Medication Errors Related to Pounds and Kilograms.” It advocates for only using metric system units (i.e. kilograms for weight) to reduce dosing errors since most medications use weight to determine the correct dose. It’s reason is simple: There are about two pounds in a kilogram. Doctors and nurses are schooled in the metric system but have to bounce back and forth between metric and U.S. customary units to communicate with their American patients. If they mix up the two, they might give the patients half the dose they need (potentially rendering it ineffective) or twice the amount (read overdose).

Using metric system units for medicine has also been recommended by multiple health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control. (See the above image)

The gentleman reviewed the report and since—I assume—he could no longer argue on that particular point, he launched into what I’ve now dubbed “The argument of twelves.”

The Argument of Twelves

The argument goes something like this: If you are working with a group/set of 12s, then your factors are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12; but if you are working in the metric system, your factors are only 1, 2, 5, and 10.

I consider this to be a specious argument since (and please, but nicely correct me if I’m wrong) we don’t really measure a lot of things by twelves. Sure, a foot has twelve inches and there are twelve months in a year. (Apparently eggs are sold by the dozen—according to the New York Times—because eggs were a penny each and there are 12 pennies in a shilling. Selling eggs by the dozen meant, as a vendor, you didn’t have to make change.) However, there isn’t much else I can think of that comes in twelves except a gross of 144 items (which is 12 multiplied by 12). You can’t really cite time because military/Zulu time uses a 24-hour clock.

If we actually had 12 ounces in a cup and 12 cups to a gallon and 12 ounces in a pound and 12 yards to a mile, then I would understand that counter argument. (In reality, there are 8 ounces in a cup, 16 cups and 128 ounces in gallon, 16 ounces in a pound, and 1,760 yards in a mile…plus 36 inches or 3 feet in a yard and so on.)

But, when it comes to everyday measurement, we really only divide up inches, months, and eggs into twelves. I don’t think that’s enough reason to reject using the metric system.

However, I’ve found after seven years on this project (the anniversary of which was the day before yesterday), if people are threatened by the idea of changing to the metric system—for any number of reasons—they will latch onto whatever immediately comes to mind to reject it.

Around the time that the man was winding down his argument of twelves, some other—more open-minded people—approached me and I turned my attention to them.

I’ve said many times that, when it comes to this issue, there are probably 10-20 percent of people who already love the metric system and there’s about another 10-20 percent who are completely opposed to it.

It’s my plan to focus my attention on the 60 to 80 percent who don’t realize we have a problem in this country and are open to learning about it. Maybe action will eventually occur. That’s my hope. If you want to become more involved, let me know at milebehind@gmail.com.

In a closing note: I realize that some people ascribe a historical and religious meaning to the number 12, but we don’t have to limit the number of members on a jury or the number of apostles due to the metric system so let’s not shoehorn that number into our measurement system unnecessarily.

Plan for another post in September.

Thanks for getting this far,

Linda

A liquid measuring cup and the metric system

measuring-cups

This was really difficult to photograph since the units (cups and ounces on one side and milliliters on the other) are only embossed. Most measuring cups use ink for contrast. Hopefully, the visual complexity of one side compared with the other still comes across.

Every once in a while I come across something that really lives up to the cliché of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I thought I’d share the images above with you since it relates directly to our lack of metric system adoption.

Most glass measuring cups are fairly cleanly designed to show U.S. customary units on one side (no, we don’t use the Imperial units we originally brought over with us from the U.K) and those of the metric system on the other side.

However, the one I recently bought really puts our awkward system into full light.

Interestingly, when I pointed my find out to the person at the cash register, she indicated that she wanted one as well. Alas, as I was shopping in a discount store, I had to inform her that I was buying the only one I saw. (Frankly, I was pleased that someone else wanted something that I considered a fairly unusual item.)

Keep in mind that the whole point of having liquid measuring cups is to avoid spilling whatever one wishes to measure. In theory, the volume-based measure of, say a cup that can be leveled off at the top containing dry ingredients, should be exactly the same as for a liquid measure. The only reason for a liquid measure is to prevent spilling once the measurement is made.

dryvswet

Americans have both “dry” and “wet” measuring cups is so, if you need a full cup of a liquid, you don’t spill it. A liquid measuring cup provides “slosh” margin above the full-cup measure. Also, liquids tend to level themselves. “Dry” cups makes it easy to push off any excess material and make it level. That’s why you don’t normally see half and quarter cup measures listed within dry measuring cups—you couldn’t level them. [Note the ml printed on the dry measuring cup.]

Once I decided to write a blog post about the measuring cup posted at the top of the page,  I tried to do some more research to find out why the designer veered off toward visual complexity for something that is usually designed with simplicity in mind. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out much more from the paper price tag on the bottom of the cup, but it indicated that its origin was Turkey (even though, according to the U.S. Metric Association, Turkey adopted the metric system [or SI as it is known by most of the world] back in 1930. So apparently the cup was intended only for the U.S. market.

There was no identifiable marker’s mark other than something that looked to me like almost a ying and yang mark. A mystery to me, but if someone else can shed light on the maker so I can get some more background—preferably in English—I’d be happy to hear it.

Thanks for reading,

Linda Anderman