Measurement Standards: It All Started Down on the Farm…

An impressive array of equipment in an early CDFA metrology lab (undated).

An impressive array of equipment in an early CDFA metrology lab (undated). See additional photos at the end of this post.

When you go to the supermarket and you buy a gallon of milk or a pound of oranges, how do you know you’re getting your money’s worth? How about a quart of oil, or an acre of land, or a truckload of building materials? Well, it all started down on the farm…

As our ancestors made the transition from their hunter-gather origins to agriculture-based communities, the concept of the farm as an essential part of their lives evolved along with them. Over many generations, the farm became a central point not just for the community’s sustenance and survival, but also for its commerce. Early farmers and the people who bought, sold and traded for what they grew developed a richer understanding of the science of measurement as a basis for fairness in that burgeoning marketplace. Many industries developed and adapted their own measurement standards, but the standards for measuring staples like milk and grain, the weight of livestock, an acre of land and many more were largely learned and passed down by societies because of interactions with farmers.

In the relatively brief history of California, folks who lived in rural communities and needed an accurate weight for a commercial transaction knew where to go – to the farmer. That’s who had the spot-on scales and other measuring devices, as well as the expertise to use them. Even for the “city folk” who had ample occasion to make or convert measurements in their daily lives, one obvious place to look was the farmer’s almanac. For centuries, agriculture has provided a trustworthy, reliable platform for fairness in commercial transactions.

Fast-forward to today, and CDFA’s Division of Measurement Standards carries on that public trust by ensuring the accuracy of a broad range of devices used in commercial transactions, from gas pumps to truck scales to supermarket price scanners. CDFA’s regulatory leadership and technical expertise in the science of measurement is a key reason why Californians trust that a gallon is a gallon, whether it’s milk or gas or olive oil. With the assistance of county sealers and their inspectors, weights and measures officials are able to routinely inspect and test the 1.4 million scales, meters and other commercially used devices registered throughout California.

The Future of Measurement Standards

As modern commerce races ahead with new technologies, products and services, the standards of measurement must keep pace. For example: with the recent approval of a hydrogen fuel dispenser at California State University, Los Angeles, the Golden State’s consumers are well on their way to adding a few kilograms of hydrogen (and zero emissions) to the weekly shopping list. CDFA’s experts approved the equipment used to dispense that fuel. Another new “fuel” is electricity, and CDFA is focusing its efforts on the specifications and accuracy requirements for publicly available electric car charging stations that are popping up to meet the demand created by 120,000 electric vehicles now driving on California roads.  Whatever the next advancement, we’ll be there. Just think of it as the latest in a long line of evolutionary steps that started on the very first farm.

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4 Responses to Measurement Standards: It All Started Down on the Farm…

  1. Archie Diaz says:

    there are lots of Farmers Market all over California on any given weekend, County and State Division of Weights and Measures are close on weekends….as far as routine inspections, are they being checked?
    As consumers, we pay for what’s indicated on their weighing scale….We rely on the Farmers honesty and hard work, it all started down on the Farm….

    • Kristin Macey says:

      Dear Archie,
      When the scales at farmers markets are used to determine the weight (and therefore price) of produce, they are commercial scales that are tested by county weights and measures inspectors. Look for the round approval seal/sticker on the scale. Several scenarios exist for testing these scales: The owners of these scales make arrangements to bring their scale in to the county and have it tested during the week, or, sometimes inspectors will work on the weekends because they know that’s when the markets are open.

  2. Betsy says:

    I’m curious about the picture with the following caption:

    “An Inspector of Weights & Measures testing a gasoline meter with a Seraphin Field Standard.” (undated)

    Why is there a gasoline meter at the base of what looks to be a street light? Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Kristin Macey says:

      Dear Betsy,
      Sorry, we don’t have any information on this old photo other than the caption; it was extracted from our archives. This picture is fascinating because it shows how rudimentary gasoline dispensers were back in the 1920s (guessing on the age here), and how there were no visible labeling or signage. The only thing consistent is the Seraphin test measure, which is still being manufactured and used by weights and measures officials throughout California and all over the U.S. Thanks for asking!
      Kristin Macey

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