Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Farmers aren’t turning to farmers almanacs anymore. At least not to forecast the weather for their crops. While they turn to radio, television and the Internet for weather advice, modern-day farmers read the almanacs more for nostalgia and to check information against other sources.

“When the almanac started, there was no other source available to them. … People relied on the information,” says Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine. Today, “I think people look to the almanac for nostalgia and times gone by,” she says.

Farmers, along with gardeners, weather watchers, stargazers and those planning activities, can refer to the farmers almanacs’ long-range weather forecasts, astronomical data and helpful hints for the home and garden.

The Farmers’ Almanac, founded in 1818, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, use different formulas to develop the weather forecasts and astronomical calculations that provide a resource for gardeners and farmers to use from planting to harvest.

“Many people swear by the results they get, and they follow this forecast,” says Mrs. Duncan, a resident of Franklin Township, N.J. “I look at the best times to garden and try to follow it when I start my garden. I find when I do, I get pretty good results.”

Mauretta Jacobson, co-owner of Jacobson Tree Farm in Leesburg, Va., says she and her husband, LeRoy, have their own form of an almanac. “We plant in the spring when we feel it is convenient for us and the weather is right,” she says.

The Jacobsons shape their Christmas-tree crop at the end of June until they are finished in July or August, she says. They work on the crop “when we feel the time is best,” she says.

The Farmers’ and Old Farmer’s almanacs use weather-forecasting formulas based on methods that date from the periodicals’ beginnings. Caleb Weatherbee, the pseudonym for the current forecaster at the Farmers’ Almanac, keeps the formula locked in his desk and in his mind, basing his forecasts on sunspot activity, the tidal action of the moon and other astronomical and mathematical factors, Mrs. Duncan says.

The formula used by the Old Farmer’s Almanac also is “a secret and is locked in a black box,” says Janice Stillman, editor of the Dublin, N.H., periodical.

The “box” is accessed by Michael Steinberg, the sole meteorologist for the almanac. He employs meteorology, the study of atmosphere, and climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns, to forecast weather 18 months ahead. He considers solar science in making the forecast, studying how solar activity and sunspots, which are magnetic storms appearing as dark spots on the surface of the sun, can influence weather activity.

“Our weatherman takes the study he’s made of the sun, of solar cycles over the long term … and interprets that using meteorology to come up with a forecast,” Miss Stillman says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in contrast, employs computer models to provide daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal and annual forecasts. NOAA collects observations of temperature, moisture, wind and pressure from around the world. The observations, along with climatological information and information on the season, time of year, location and other factors, are entered into the computer model to generate the forecasts.

“You start off with an observation, and you create a new set of observations. Its a boot-strapping process,” says Edward O’Lenic, meteorologist at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs. “The model creates a new set of data at a later time in the future.”

The model, which is 90 percent accurate for daily forecasts and 60 percent accurate for seasonal forecasts, is “not a perfect science,” says Jim Travers, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Sterling, Va. The service is a part of NOAA.

“Mistakes are made, especially since it’s a complicated system we’re trying to forecast. We still need human beings in the equation,” Mr. Travers says.

The Farmers’ and Old Farmer’s almanacs provide more general forecasts than does NOAA, with annual and monthly regional forecasts, which gardeners and farmers can use to plan planting, pruning and other activities.

The annual forecasts summarize predicted weather conditions for the year, while the regional forecasts detail which days of the month certain weather conditions, such as snow, rain and fog, might occur.

The forecasts, along with astronomical data, are readily available in tables, charts and lists that compress information into short sentences, numbers and symbols.

“It may be referenced occasionally to pull up dates and old wives’ tales, but we don’t use it,” says Corey Childs, director of extension services and an agriculture and natural resources extension agent at the Loudoun Cooperative Extension, in reference to the two farmers almanacs.

“There hasn’t been a great deal of research on it, so that is not something we can recommend to our customers. But it is fun reading. There are things in there people have been doing for years,” he says. “It used to be more commonplace … especially in rural communities.”

Using an almanac can fulfill a sense of nostalgia, Mrs. Duncan says. “It fills a desire in all of us to get back to basics and back to simpler times.”

The Farmers’ Almanac has a circulation of 2 million and has readers of all ages.

“Our Farmers’ Almanac is family-oriented,” Mrs. Duncan says. “It’s really become something people can pick up every day and find useful information. We have a little bit of everything in the almanac.”

At the Old Farmer’s Almanac, “gardening has been an interest of almanac readers, so we have tried to fill that interest for decades,” Miss Stillman says about the periodical, which has a circulation of 4 million in the United States and 400,000 for the Canadian edition.

NOAA’s Mr. O’Lenic says, “I know it’s very useful for planting and things like that.”

The Farmers’ and Old Farmer’s almanacs provide astronomical data and sky highlights, which in the Old Farmer’s Almanac are offered in calendar pages for each month. The pages chart the length of day; the sun, moon and planet rise and set times; and the moon’s astronomical or actual placement in the sky.

A separate section gives the moon’s astrological place in the zodiac for gardening by the moon phases.

The Farmers’ Almanac includes calendar pages that provide information on the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the moon’s place in the zodiac and the length of each day of the year. A separate planting and gardening chart gives the best dates each month for the various activities.

“There is a lot of moon lore that has been bred within the pages of the almanac. It’s not proven, but people do swear that if they follow these rules and these guidelines we put in the almanac, they will get better results,” Mrs. Duncan says.

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