Is the Old Farmer’s Almanac still accurate?
For over 225 years, the Old Farmer’s Almanac has rested on the shelves of bookstores and barns around the United States. The oldest, continually-published periodical in America (it predates just about every newspaper), the handbook has acted as everything from astrological calendar to produce grower’s bible to guide for annual weather predictions. It’s rumored that thrifty farmers hung the Almanac outside their outhouses to “repurpose” its tear-away months. Even 2016’s edition still has a hole punched in it for tradition’s sake. But how accurate is the Almanac, really? And why do today’s modern farmers — who might be reading this year’s edition on a kindle — schedule their planting regimens based on predictions printed alongside moon calendars and articles on “civilized ways to polish silver?” With many climatologists eschewing the periodical’s practical use (one on Twitter compares it to “going to a psychic”), the Almanac continues to sell, and doesn’t seem to be ending its two-century run any time soon.
One of these Almanac devotees is Spice’s farm manager Andrea Heim. Even today, when farming is overwhelmingly corporate opposed to individual, Heim’s operation is relatively simple. She plans growing schedules based on Spice’s request — from lettuce to pea shoots to daikon radish. She mows, dries, and waters, often with the help of a small work staff. Most work is done by hand, especially when mechanical aids go awry, as when one of her seeders broke down in May. “People have farmed for thousands of years,” she says, “and there I was crawling on my hands and knees counting seeds. How ridiculous.”
Heim likes to tell people, farmers or not, that she “swears by” the Almanac, using the periodical mostly to plan weddings (popular at Spice) and to foresee what kind of rain future months will bring. Planting at the wrong time — during a prolonged heat wave, for example — could mean disaster for Spice ingredient delivery. As for this August, when an Almanac-predicted dry spell aims to swoop over Northeast Ohio, Heim will prepare for the worst, “even if its wrong.” She’s already planning to buy barrels of water in bulk. Why? “Because the Almanac told me to.”
Of course, Heim can’t rely solely on a yearly prediction, which is why you can find her starting most mornings checking the Weather Channel app on her iPhone. As Heim knows well, sharp delineations in forecast can change instantly. When a two-week cold spell swooped over Northeast Ohio in May — “cold and blustery,” according to Almanac 2016 predictions — Heim had to act on her feet and buy tanks of propane to keep her plants toasty to grow to maturity. If not, they would have all died, and Heim would’ve come up short.
“The Almanac doesn’t necessarily help with ultra-specific stuff, because it’s so general,” she says. “But hey, I make mistakes all the time. A lot of farming really is just luck, so it helps to at least have the Almanac or the Weather Channel to take a little bit of chance away.” Comparing farming to the art of gambling, Heim thinks of the Almanac as “kind of like your little racehorse cheatsheet.”
“Unchanged Since 1792”
Founded by the American journalist Robert B. Thomas in 1792, the Old Farmer’s Almanac grew quickly among New England farming circles to surmount the publishing success of competitor’s pamphlets. When Thomas died in May 1846, the publication regained its “Old” label after its first editor had removed it for a time in the 1830s. Since then, the general principles, values, and style of the farmer’s bible have remained relatively unscathed. (Except, of course, it’s price. What first sold for four cents is now around fourteen dollars.) In the 2016 edition, one can still find among gardening tables and tide charts “cheap beer recipes” from 1815, the astrologically-stylized Calendar Pages as “unchanged since 1792,” with weather proverbs — “Thrilling! Great for rototilling, potato-hilling, and switchel-swilling! Darkening skies: time for strawberry pies!” — in between ads on edge trimmers and Jitterbug cell phones. And yes, 2016 is still hole-punched, as “to be hanged by a nail and string.”
“These are all traditional practices and beliefs,” says Janice Stillman, the 17th editor of the Almanac since Thomas. “Thinking back 225 years ago, folks didn’t have the kinds of tools we have — clocks, maps, GPSs. They didn’t have distractions. They really looked to nature” for their information. “Whether you believe in the Almanac or not, it’s a matter of trust that nature knows and has her way.”
Though Stillman still backs the “80 percent accurate” claim founder Thomas boasted in 1792, she’s repeatedly bombarded by skeptics and dissenters who see the Almanac as useless for anything climate-related. Even as Stillman prepares content for the Almanac’s 2017 edition, her and her editorial staff will use the same three-pronged magic formula Thomas devised 200-plus years ago (a mixture of “solar science, climatology, and meteorology,” according to their website), one locked away in secrecy, in a fire-proof “black box” stored somewhere in their offices in Dublin, Massachusetts.
Despite its criticism in recent years, the Almanac has had its share of luck with its forecast. Its prediction of El Niño’s affects on the West last year were surprisingly accurate when almost all meteorologists at the time turned their backs on the Almanac’s forecast (the area, it turns out, was drier than foreseen). And for 2014-2015 season, the Almanac boasts that it was 96.3 percent accurate in its predictions, though some still beg to ask what that exactly that means. This is mainly because the Almanac uses what scientists dub a “climatology forecast” (a prediction based on weather patterns over the years combined with at-the-moment measures), which is what services like AccuWeather use to do 90-day forecasts. It’s kind of like planning an across-the-States road trip: you can pretty much see how it’ll look, where the big bumps in the road may be, yet still be surprised when that monument is shut down, that rest stop non-existent.
This lack of depth is why climatologists tend to roll their eyes when mentioning the Almanac. “I actually have no faith in it at all,” says Scott Sheridan, professor of climatology at Kent State University, who’s research primarily deals with weather prediction in the Midwest. “If you think about it, we have a much better ability to forecast next week [from today] than if we were to look at next week [from] last year. The forecast made today is certainly going to be more accurate than one made a year ago.”
There’s an App…
In computer models that Weather Channel meteorologists use, a three-to-five day forecast is made primarily off of weather data obtained in real-time, data that allows us a 12-minute warning before a tornado hits or an hour before a thunderstorm. All else is based on climate, the habits of region. Want to know for sure what December 12, 2016 is going to be like this year? Sheridan says you’re mostly relying on bets. But if a farmer needs to know which summer months might contain the majority of rain showers, that, he says, can be better predicted. Somewhat.
“I think that if you take the forecasts with a grain of salt, and understand that they’re based on climatology with some tweaking,” he says, “it’s fine.” And if I’m using it for sunset tables or the best dates to plant okra or muskmelons? “I don’t see any issue with that,” Sheridan admits.
Heim preps for an “above-normal” summer: the Almanac predicts the Lower Lakes region to be dotted with a lot of “hot, then cool” spells with “scattered t-storms.” Then there’s the “more-active hurricane season” and some “frigid winters” to look out for. But overall Heim is prepared for the months to come. As of late May, she’s combating the return of Northeast cicadas the best she knows how, allocating enough grow-time for Spice-directed produce, all while keeping the farm dogs in sight. “They really love to run away,” Heim says. “But as far as how far they go, or how often they run away? The Almanac doesn’t really predict that.”