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A look at the Old Farmer's Almanac

December 15, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

An iconic yellow cover with an engraving of the four seasons proclaims, "Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor." The hole in the upper left corner was nixed in the 1990's because it added $40,000 to the budget, but it was brought back by customer demand. Known for its weather forecasts, in this area as in rural areas throughout the United States, it could be found in every farmhouse (or outhouse) for generations.

"The Old Farmer's Almanac" is the original farmer's almanac and the oldest continuously published magazine in America. It was founded in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas, who was also the editor until his death in 1846. There were several almanac-type publications around, but, in its second year, OFA outshone his competitors by tripling his circulation to 9,000. It was also Thomas who came up with the hole in the corner for hanging the book on a nail or by a string.

The word "almanac" can be traced back to a Spanish Arabic phrase meaning "the calendar," and much of the traditional content of the OFA is time and season related, offering guidance to a rural society. Since weather is a major factor in farming, Thomas made a study of astronomy, solar activity and weather cycles, analyzing and tuning his findings into a "secret formula" for predictions. To this day, his formula is kept locked in a black tin box at the OFA offices in New Hampshire, though the publishers now use more modern sciences like climatology, meteorology, solar science and NOAA's 30-year cycle records to conjure up weather forecasts.

Article Photos

Photo provided
THIS GRAPHIC, provided by, shows the Old Farmer’s Almanac winter 2012-13 outlook.

Past generations have put much stock into those predictions, however. There is a story about the FBI capturing a German spy on a U-boat near the New York coast. He was carrying a copy of the 1942 "Old Farmer's Almanac." Concerned that the weather "predictions" might be aiding the enemy, the magazine's publishers ran weather "indications" during the remaining war years.

Alas, the home turf may have been safer than they thought. The magazine claims a fairly high accuracy rate (80 to 90 percent), but analysts over the years have compared actual weather to the OFA predictions and nearly all have found that the magazine does slightly better than flipping a coin (50 to 52 percent.)

Others point out that saying there will be a hurricane in the southeast in August is much like saying there will be snow in the northeast in January - a fairly sure thing. Some also note that some of the predictions are so vague that they could apply to several types of weather situations, similar to reading syndicated horoscopes.

Speaking of horoscopes, the zodiac, as it applies to the calendar, skies and constellations, is one of the standard components of the OFA. On pages 228 and 229 of the 2013 edition, the signs are noted in accordance with the Moon. Farming by moon phases is an old practice and has had a resurgence of popularity with the biodynamic system of farming developed by a German scientist in the 1920's.

The chart on page 229 lists the Moon's astrological path for 2013 as a help to setting eggs.

For example, the OFA recommends that chicks hatch during the waxing moon (from the time of the new moon to full moon) in the signs of Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces. One would first determine, via the calendar pages (104-130), when the waxing moon phases occur during any given month. Then, using that data and the chart on 229, a farmer can find the most desirable times to hatch. Counting back 21 days from that time period will give the farmer the "set" time.

Additionally, the signs of the zodiac are connected to the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. When the Moon is in fertile earth signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, it is said to be a good time for planting root crops and planting and transplanting for root development. When the Moon is in barren air signs Libra, Aquarius and Gemini, farmers should be pruning, weeding, harvesting or cultivating. The barren phases of fire signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, are also good for maintenance and harvesting, especially of vegetables for long-term storage.

While the Moon travels through fertile water signs Cancer, Pisces and Scorpio, it is a good time especially to plant things that concentrate their growth above ground, like leafy greens. Given the Moon's powerful effect on tides and anything containing a large percentage of water (i.e. humans), it doesn't seem unreasonable to take its effects on leafy, water-filled plants into consideration while concentrating on more fibrous roots below ground during the earth sign phases.

The OFA also mentions the phenomenon "Mercury retrograde." When a planet is in retrograde it appears to be going backwards in the sky. When Mercury is in this phase (a few times each year), activities, communications and electronics seem to go a bit haywire. The magazine suggests taking some extra time and postponing big decisions until Mercury returns to its direct path.

Keep in mind, as the book says, "the planetary movements do not cause events, rather, they explain the path, or 'flow,' that events tend to follow."

As far as the magazine's "pleasant degree of humor," the 2013 OFA offers tips on raising pets, children and sheep, as well as the history of kissing. There are also recipes, vocabulary words and historical articles.

Four print editions print are published annually, three focusing on different areas of the United States and one for Canada, added in 1982. Today, more than three million print copies are sold annually, and 1.3 million visitors check out monthly. The OFA Facebook page has more than 140,000 "likes."

What is in store for the Ohio Valley this winter? The source says, "colder and drier than normal, with above normal snowfall" with the snowiest periods occurring "in mid to late November, mid to late December and early to mid-January."



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