Corn Production and the Great Pyramid of Giza

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It can be a challenge to put large numbers into perspective without a frame of reference. For example, when I hear about things costing millions, billions, or trillions of dollars, I can’t really understand the size of this unless I relate it to something I CAN understand. One trick I’ve used is to convert these large numbers to time. For example, if one dollar equals one second, then a million dollars would be equivalent to 11.5 days. Using this same scale, a billion dollars equals 31.7 years and a trillion dollars is equivalent to 31,710 years. This simple comparison helps me understand the scale of these numbers and how they compare to one another.

The time scale of 11.5 days is very understandable. It is just a little less than 2 weeks. A billion seconds is also a quantifiable amount of time. I consider anyone 31.7 years old to actually be young. However, a trillion seconds (or 31,710 years) is huge. On the world history timeline, agriculture and the agrarian lifestyle has only existed for about 10,000 years.

Let’s try another comparison. This time let’s try to better understand annual corn production in Caldwell County, North Carolina, and the United States. According to the NC Department of Agriculture in 2019, there were 1,450 acres of corn grown in Caldwell County. The average yield was 125 bushels per acre. This is a very good yield considering the national corn yield average in the 1920’s was only 25 bushels per acre.

According to the website, the Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is composed of over 2 ½ million blocks of limestone. It is 454 feet high, which is equivalent to a modern 48-story building. Its base covers over 13 acres and its volume is about 90,000,000 cubic feet. A normal city block is 2.25 acres, so this pyramid covers almost 6 city blocks.

If we tried to make a full scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza from the county’s corn crop, it could be hauled in 211 fully loaded tractor trailers, but it would only be able to complete the first 4 feet of the pyramid’s base.

If we were to collect all the corn grain produced annually in North Carolina, there would be enough to build 1.25 full scale Great Pyramids. And if we collected all the corn produced in the United States, we could build 167 Great Pyramids. The footprint of the 167 pyramids would be over 3 square miles, almost twice the size of the total corn acreage in Caldwell County. The United States produces approximately one third of all the corn in the world and more than any other country.

Agriculture and Agribusiness is the largest industry in North Carolina, accounting for 16% of the total revenue generated in North Carolina. In dollars, the Agriculture and Agribusiness industry accounts for $95 billion annually. Corn is just one of many commodities produced in North Carolina. The total value of the 2019 corn crop was $460 million. Although almost half a billion dollars is a big number, it is only about 0.5% of the total income from Agriculture and Agribusiness.

If you’re faced with big numbers in your life, try making some comparisons so you can put the numbers into meaningful terms for YOU.

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— Seth Nagy is the Caldwell County Cooperative Extension director. The Caldwell County Cooperative Extension Center, 120 Hospital Ave. NE, #1 in Lenoir, provides access to resources of N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University through educational programs and publications.