- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

BOSTON | Doris Smith Mills often comes across past editions of the Old Farmer’s Almanac at her family’s 110-year-old farm in Westport, Mass. She believes previous Smiths read it for entertainment and for its yearly weather predictions in order to be ready for New England’s fickle climate changes.

Today, the 78-year-old has the 24-hour Weather Channel and various weather Web sites at her fingertips, and her farm has technology to handle all sorts of extreme weather. But she still reads the Dublin, N.H.-based almanac because it’s been reliable for generations, she said.

“It helps us prepare,” said Miss Smith, whose family owns Noquochoke Orchards along the Westport River. “It’s interesting. I like reading it.”

Despite the accessibility of forecasts that rely more heavily on traditional science, the 218-year-old Old Farmer’s Almanac and its longtime New England competitor, the Maine-based Farmer’s Almanac, still draw droves of fans. The books, which predict weather based on sunspots, planetary positions and meteorology, still are popular at farmers markets and bookstores. Each has a circulation of 3.5 million, and their Web sites are stacked with videos, blogs and podcasts.

Old Farmer’s Almanac Editor Janice Stillman said her publication, the latest edition of which was released this week, is even looking into creating an iPhone application. “We’ve always been state of the art since 1792,” Miss Stillman said.

Based on their own calculations, both almanacs are predicting a colder-than-usual winter. That conflicts with the long-range forecast by the National Weather Service, which is calling for warmer-than-normal temperatures across much of the country because of an El Nino system in the tropical Pacific Ocean, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac also predicts a cooler summer and says a major hurricane will hit Florida next September. Miss Stillman said upcoming solar activity, such as sunspots, are one of the factors in the almanac’s predictions.

John Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric science professor at Texas A&M University, said predicting long-range weather is a challenge for scientists and laymen alike. But El Nino and La Nina systems have proven to be good indicators of what to expect.

“There is no known evidence that sunspots have but a small effect on the Earth’s climate,” said Mr. Nielsen-Gammon. “And we’re talking about a couple of tenths of a degree Celsius difference.”

Still, Judson Hale, the semiretired chairman and longtime pitchman for the Old Farmer’s Almanac, said there have always been almanac doubters. Mr. Hale, 76, said the almanac uses a combination of science and a “secret formula” created by founder Robert B. Thomas. That combination, Mr. Hale said, has produced what he calls an “80 percent accuracy rate” in predicting long-range weather.

The secret formula, according to the almanac’s Web site, is kept in a black box that is locked away in the New Hampshire offices and can only be accessed by a small number of employees.

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