John's World: Metric Vs. Imperial System in Agriculture

111718 John's World
John Phipps is an advocate of the metric system. He explains in this week's John's World. ( Farm Journal )

Years ago, when hosting some Danish farmers we inevitably got around to comparing yields. Of course, converting metric tons per hectare to bushels to the acre before smartphones meant a lot of frowning silence as we all fumbled with the math in our heads. In the process I noticed they has some benchmark numbers, like 15 tons per hectare that established what an admirable yield was. (For what it’s worth that works out to 239 bushels of corn or 220 bushels of wheat per acre – which only took us about 10 minutes and a dozen guesses to arrive at).

The current record for wheat, by the way, is 16.8 tons per hectare or 250 bushels per acre set by a New Zealand farmer, Eric Watson.

My point is how they focused on 15, while I was obsessed then with 200 bushel corn or 60 bushel beans. That was several years ago, so just like I’ve moved to 300 for corn and 100 for beans, those guys are fantasizing about 20 tonne wheat. Interestingly, in an interview, the record-holder, Eric Watson talked about his combine yield monitor hitting 20 t/ha – another round number. That’s the thing about round number goals, you keep bumping them up. And those big numbers that briefly flash across our monitors seem to lodge in our memories. No wonder we’re always mildly disappointed about our yields.

Psychologists offer several theories about why we love round numbers, and especially those based on 10. This automatic benchmarking is both mildly amusing and potentially problematic. Such goals rob us of deserved satisfaction when we get yields just short of that Dream Goal. When it comes to marketing, round number price targets like $4 for corn capture our attention in the same way. I’m sure our experts could add stories to back this up, but over the years, I’ve found it to be a good idea to sell some a few cents short of those dream prices.

I’ve also tried to discipline myself to count any yield over my career trendline as a reason to celebrate – regardless of how round the number is. This practice short-circuits the permanent buzz-kill of discontentment from ever-advancing round number goals. This effort has been mildly successful at best.

It’s another reason why I advocate for the US to join the rest of the world in the metric system. Not only could we finally make sense of the world supply and demand numbers, which drive us crazy trying to convert, but we’d all be scrambling to set new benchmarks to decide whether we’re happy or not. For a few years at least, that confusion might let us enjoy some alternate ways to measure satisfaction.