Correction to This Article
A previous online version of this story indicated the price of the Old Farmer's Almanac was $15.95. The correct price is $5.99.

Gardening: Is There a Place for the Old Farmer's Almanac in the Digital Age?

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Here are three words you might expect to cause instant seizure with an Internet search engine: Old. Farmer's. Almanac.

And yet, those canny New England Yankees who publish the annual Old Farmer's Almanac have just put out No. 218 in seeming blithe indifference to the seismic shifts that have rocked traditional print media in the digital age.

The almanac ($5.99 at, as it happens, predicts earthquakes and a lot of other natural phenomena, and describes how we should live with them, advising on such things as the moment to start a diet and the best day to slaughter a pig (for you, presumably, not the hog). It all has to do with the alignment of the firmament, or something like that.

Its philosophy is a bit weird and wacky, but it reaches deep into the agrarian roots and folkloric traditions of America, and it still resonates with more than 3 million readers.

An almanac is an astronomic and astrological calendar of the heavens. That was the core of the first almanac, published by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, and remains the heart of the current one. The look is still old -- cheap paper, black ink and lots of charts and symbols -- though I wish the editors would go back to styling the letter "s" as "f." Mr. Thomas admonished that May "is a very bufy month with farmers and gardners [sic]. Uncover your afparagus bed. Turn your young cattle into the wood lands, fo as to fave your paftures." Mr. Thomas was one fmart cookie.

And what of the pastures of our weather? Long-range weather prediction is the stock in trade of almanacs, and though the Old Farmer's Almanac claims with a straight face 80 percent accuracy, and its rival, the Farmers' Almanac, 80 to 85 percent, their forecasts for the coastal mid-Atlantic region this winter are quite different. The Old Farmer's Almanac, published in Dublin, N.H., predicts a cold and snowy season; the Farmers' Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine, forecasts one of normal temperatures and precipitation.

Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, said that "we use satellite data, state-of-the-art information. It's just the interpretation of that information and the inclusion of activity of the sun into our forecast that distinguishes us from just about everybody else." Did we mention the ace in the hole? "We have a secret formula," she said, "the calculations of which even I don't know."

The Farmers' Almanac ($5.99 at, which uses its own top-secret formula, mentions that in 2007 its winter forecast was even more accurate than Punxsutawney Phil's, contradicting the Pennsylvania groundhog in forecasting six more weeks of winter.

I agreed to meet Stillman, wondering if she would arrive looking like Betsy Ross, but her hair was close-cropped and she wore a chartreuse designer leather jacket. She gave me copies of the 2010 almanac, but the one I was salivating for was the 2009 edition, so I could check its accuracy.

I have figured out that the key to weather forecasting in general and the almanacs in particular is to hedge your bets. The Old Farmer's Almanac lumps the country into 16 regions. Washington is part of the Atlantic corridor stretching from Richmond to Boston, which in itself seems a pretty good hedge, capturing so much latitude.

A year ago, the almanac predicted for our region snow in early and mid-December, early January, early and late February, and early March. It may have snowed somewhere in that corridor during those periods, but Reagan National Airport got a smidgen less than two inches of snow on Jan. 27 and 5.5 inches at the beginning of March. That was it for the winter.

Our really wet spring also caught the old farmer dozing. He had predicted a normal or drier season.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity