As the seasons begin to change and summer starts slipping into fall, gardeners across the country are asking the same question: Should I put in my winter garden or wait a few weeks?
Much of the country has been plagued with a prolonged drought. Gardeners want to know if the heat and dry air will linger. Or if the change of seasons will bring welcome and much-needed rain that will help freshly planted seeds sprout and transplants grow new roots.
When to plant? Who knows?
The editors at the Old Farmer’s Almanac do — or, at least they have a pretty good idea.
Editors at America’s longest continuously published periodical have been predicting long-range temperatures and precipitation across the country with 80 percent accuracy since 1792.
How do they do it?
In the old days, they made predictions from a “secret formula” created by the publication’s founder, Robert B. Thomas. That formula was locked away in an old tin box in the company’s headquarters in Dublin, N.H., a long time ago.
Today, editors use a different formula to predict temperatures and precipitation. But this one is no secret. The current formula depends on three scientific principles:
They also compare historical weather and solar patterns with current solar activity and current conditions to come up with a prediction.
In addition, for those who like folklore, they offer legendary weather-predicting tips — such as the one about the woolly bear caterpillar, the larval form of Pyrrharctia Isabella, the Isabella tiger moth. Legend has it that the width of the middle brown section of the caterpillar is a predictor of winter weather. Supposedly, the wider the brown segment, the harsher the coming winter will be. If the brown band is narrow, old timers say the winter will be mild. Folklore, however, is not part of the staff’s forecasting formula.
Secret formulas and scientific principles
In an age of up-to-the-minute details from state-of-the-art weather satellites and an emphasis on new and ever-improving technology, do serious gardeners actually rely on long-range predictions from The Old Farmer’s Almanac anymore?
“We still have a huge print audience that buys the book every year,” said Mare-Anne Jarvela, a 19-year veteran and senior research editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. “We distributed 3.1 million copies last year.”
And, she points out that editors constantly receive words of appreciation about how people use the almanac. For instance, in the 2012 essay contest "How The Old Farmer's Almanac has influenced my life," the winning entry was from a minister who was sent from Toronto to Saskatchewan to serve three tiny rural communities. She was nervous about how the farmers and ranchers would receive her, so she studied the Old Farmer’s Almanac and won them over with a story she read in its pages about seeding wheat.
The book is published in four geographic editions — East Coast, Southern, Western and Canada — every September with weather information broken out into 21 regions, 16 in the United States and five in Canada. The 2013 edition, the 221st, just hit shelves at major books stores, various box stores and garden centers a few weeks ago.
Loyal readers never have any trouble spotting it. The engraved cover design and familiar yellow color haven’t changed since 1851. Perhaps best of all, the $5.99 price hasn’t changed in 10 years, Jarvela said.
One reason people buy the book, Jarvela said, is because they are looking forward to fall and want to know when the cooler days of autumn will arrive. They also want to know what’s going to happen with winter weather, she added.
The average age of readers is 57 with more women readers (56 percent) than men (44 percent), according to a January 2011 survey. The survey found that the top interests are:
Nature, which includes astronomy and long-range weather predictions: 80 percent
Cooking: 75 percent
Gardening: 74 percent
History: 72 percent
The survey also revealed that the readership is very educated — 82 percent have gone to college. Almost half, 48 percent, live in rural or exurban areas; most, 80 percent, own a home, and almost all, 96 percent, cook at home at least once a week.
Useful with a sense of humor
Through the years, the editors have remained true to the book’s original mission — to be useful with a sense of humor — and have maintained the tradition of publishing the book with a hole in the upper left corner (originally, so the book could hang on a nail in an outhouse where it provided reading material and toilet paper). But they’ve also remained relevant by developing a comprehensive website, directing an online audience to the website through social media and publishing the book in an e-edition for tablets.
“We average about 1.3 million visitors and 4 million page views a month on www.almanac.com,” said Jarvela.
“The most active sections,” she said, “are the weather, the moon (moon phases, such as when full moons will occur, and gardening by the moon) as well as gardening in general.
“The website has really helped us give more current information to our readers,” she continued. “It contains a seven-day forecast and radar, so the website complements our long-range forecast in the book.
“Our Facebook page generates the most traffic for our website,” Jarvela continued. “People who have never been to our website find us through our Facebook page, which has more than 140,000 'Likes', Pinterest or just by doing Google and other Web searches.”
The online audience is also somewhat younger than the print audience. The vast majority (97 percent) of the online audience is more than 35 years old and 58 percent of the visitors are women, according to the 2011 survey.
To ensure The Old Farmer’s Almanac remains relevant, Jarvela said editors are making a concerted effort to reach the younger generation and those who like to get information on mobile devices. They are doing that by publishing a kid’s almanac for children ages 8-12 — Volume 5 is in the works — and by developing apps.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids covers the same topics as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, but is in full color, not black and white like the long-running edition for adults, has lots of photographs and is very easy to read. It is available for sale in bookstores and online at Almanac.com/store. There’s also a website for the kids edition, www.almanac4kids.com.
“This is just another way to reach out to children and get them interested in The Old Farmer’s Almanac when they are a little older,” explained Jarvela.
She added that there are now two apps for mobile phones available on iTunes and the staff is working on several more.
Apps available now include one about the moon, which helps determine when there will be a full moon and offers some moon lore, and another that offers advice for the day based on tried and true tips and American folklore. Both apps are 99 cents. At this time they are only available for Apple devices, but an Android version is in the works.
Apps in development include:
Weather lore of the day
Quote of the day
Weather history of the day
Brain teaser of the day (puzzlers from many, many years ago, Jarvela said)
Home helper of the day (tips about how to do such things as remove a stain, clean various items or cure a sore throat)
Not everyone buys in
With all of this useful information, plus a dose of humor and millions of advocates, are there non-believers in this uniquely American forecasting tradition? After all, the forecast is compiled a year and half before the book is published.
“Some meteorologists say they don’t think our forecasts are very accurate because they don’t think we can forecast that far ahead,” said Jarvela. “But,” she added, “if we hear something negative, we shrug it off and just go forward. We believe in our product. We know our readers trust us. We have a great brand and we stand behind it.
“Our readers look forward to our forecasts and take them with a grain of salt,” she continued. “If we are wrong, they forgive us and say, ‘oh well, that’s just the 20 percent of the time when they aren’t accurate.’”
The loyal fan base also finds the almanac to be a great comfort in another way. “Many people tell us they read it because their father or grandfather read it,” Jarvela said. “They also like the humor in the book and the articles and reference material has information they won’t read in the newspaper or see on the evening news every day.”
Some of that reference material not readily available in your daily paper or evening newscast is a long-range weather forecast. If you’re wondering about that information for your area so you can use it as a guide to plant broccoli and other vegetables in your fall garden, there’s an easy way for you to know what the editors know. Just visit this site: http://www.almanac.com/weather/ or turn to the forecast starting on Page 192 in the book.
Related gardening stories on MNN:
- What should I grow in the fall?
- 13 botanical gardens that should be on your bucket list
- Meet 40 farmers under 40 (or close to it!)