The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Let’s turn the Farmer’s Almanac into something real — and useful

The perennial bestseller is now disconnected from its reason for being. It wants to evoke our affection for nature but shows little interest in human nature or natural science.

(Old Farmer's Almanac)

The nonsense kicks off around mid-August. As the latest editions of farmers’ almanacs are shipped to checkout lines across the country, their makers send word to the media about their weather predictions for the next year or so. Will the Northeast have a chilly January? Will the Mid-Atlantic states get more snow than usual? According to a preview of the 2023 Old Farmer’s Almanac, the answers are yes and yes.

Of course, these forecasts aren’t exactly reliable: Meteorologists can hardly predict the weather with any real precision beyond next week, let alone next June. But getting upset at the almanac can be a little like protesting the fortune teller’s tent at the county fair. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is fake news of a gentle sort. To flip through its 2023 edition is to be nostalgic for the days when pop-culture bunk was limited to astrology, psychics and ancient folk cures. (Hay fever? Find the nearest mule and kiss its nostrils.) Cutesily, the publication is printed with a hole in the corner, so you can easily hang it in your woodshed, outhouse or wherever you like to keep your fantasies of a mud-mucked, stargazing agrarian life.

My 10-year-old has reminded me of the allure of the almanac

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is now oddly disconnected from its reason for being. It wants to evoke our affection for nature without demonstrating much of an interest in human nature, or natural science. So, it thinks small — gardening tips, life hacks, folklore. Consider the latest edition’s two-page chart of “best days” to do certain things each month, according to Moon readings. July 25, for instance, is a good day to slaughter your livestock. March 8 is good for quitting smoking. (Isn’t any day?)

The almanac envisions a world largely untroubled by current events. Beyond a few articles on its website, covid has been consistently outside the almanac’s commitment to “new, useful, and entertaining matter.” Its features are dedicated to recipes, curiosities, gardening suggestions, jokes, a history lesson about mistletoe, a feature on Ukrainian Christmas food — but no mention of why Ukraine might be of interest at the moment. It’s a wan legacy for a publication that was developed with a certain urgency: Robert B. Thomas hastened to publish the first edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac in 1792 just after leaving the hospital for a smallpox inoculation.

The book may be full of hokum, but it’s hokum with reach: Together, the Old Farmer’s Almanac (along with its main competitor, Farmers’ Almanac) boast a circulation of around 4 million copies each year, with substantial web and social media presences — numbers that put the almanac in the realm of U.S. magazines with the highest circulations.

Which is why I’ve come to think that, for the good of the nation, the farmer’s almanac could use a reboot. It would be nice to expunge it of the bogus weather predictions and astrological hooey. Instead, the almanac ought to be brought more in line with its original mission: to teach Americans how to live in this new place they invented.

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That was Benjamin Franklin’s stated intent when he published his first “Poor Richard’s Almanack” in 1732. It was, as he wrote in his autobiography, “a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books.” Reliable information at the time could be scarce; the concept of a public library was still more than a century away. Franklin saw his pedagogical role in this regard as mainly delivering his famous folksy maxims and proverbs. But as the country evolved, so did the content; during the Revolutionary War, many almanacs promoted the patriot cause. By the time Thomas published the first edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, America had ratified its Constitution but hadn’t yet sorted out its identity. So, the almanac included information on statehouse leaders, the mechanics of government, court schedules, religious dates, even a history of Jewish persecution. It provided the contours of American civic life to a country that hadn’t yet settled on them.

As Jess McHugh notes in “Americanon,” her 2021 book on influential bestsellers in American history, Thomas’s almanac “started to weave a tradition of democracy into daily life for average Americans, physically tying together their farming cycles and the cycles of their government.” And by containing such sundry information, she adds, it was a prompt to Americans to be culturally omnivorous, curious and observant. That is, products of the same Enlightenment culture that created the country itself.

To be sure, the old-school farmer’s almanac promoted some shaky mythology early on as well. It had a narrow idea of what it meant to be an American farmer, or an American, period. It elided slavery, or Black farmers, or much wisdom that resided outside of the White landowning class. But the almanac was generally intended to be an aspirational document, a unifying force for how citizens went about their business, tethered to American ideals.

In that regard, the Old Farmer’s Almanac has never striven to be especially provocative, nor was it meant to be the stubbornly inoffensive miscellany it is today. Its initial goal of planting stakes around which you might build a society has given way to something far more banal: Chicken Soup for the Soul-style positivity. “We don’t do politics; we don’t get involved in religious topics in the publication,” the almanac’s current editor, Janice Stillman, told McHugh. “As I like to say sometimes, it’s all good news. There’s no bad news in the ‘Farmer’s Almanac.’ ”

Physical books are alive with memories. Has the pandemic pushed them into the ether for good?

But: Vaccines are good news. Elections free of baseless fraud accusations are good news. Books are good news, even if efforts to ban them aren’t. Climate science is good news, even if its findings often aren’t. The civic institutions that are meaningful for America’s definition of itself — its parks, museums, government, schools and more — are good news. It’s not wrong to call these things “politics,” in the sense that everything is. But to treat them as intellectual third rails or divisive ideologies that can’t be spoken of is to patronize an American population that generally knows better and certainly deserves better.

The 2023 Old Farmer’s Almanac says that Aug. 22 is a particularly good day to demolish things. But the fact is, any day is a good day to tear down a bad idea and start fresh.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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