Almanacs staying the course after 200 years

  • Sunday, May 11, 2014

Photos Provided/Courtesy of Farmers' Almanac Sandi Duncan has been the managing editor of the Farmers' Almanac for 20 years. She says the Farmers' Almanac is more family oriented than the Old Farmer's Almanac.


Tips about gardening, fishing and astrology fill their websites, along with attention-grabbing stories about how to grow your own candy and plan a family discovery day.

Don't know what morels are? Don't worry – you're covered there, too.

And then there's that weather thing.

It's the bread and butter of the friendly rivalry between the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmer's Almanac, which for almost 200 years have been making long-term weather forecasts.

And they're pretty good at it, both claiming about 80 percent accuracy. This spring, for example, both publications predict warmer temperature with around normal rainfall through June.

But it was this past winter, when the country suffered through one of the most vicious stretches in memory, when the almanacs really shined, out-predicting the National Weather Service. Whoever paid attention to either the Farmers' Almanac or the Old Farmer's Almanac knew what was in store for them.

“This winter is shaping up to be a rough one,” predicted the Old Farmer's Almanac. “Sweaters and snow shovels should be unpacked early and kept close throughout the season.”

Both almanacs correctly foresaw the biting winter and snowfall that swept across the South and much of the rest of the country.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate prediction center didn't include the southern snowfall.

“We didn't foresee that,” said acting chief of the prediction branch Jon Gottsthalck. His group makes seasonal forecasts that are usually about three months in advance.

“Most of our forecasts were favoring warmer temperatures, or at least not cold temperatures across the Southeast.”

The secret that allows both almanacs to have such success is tightly held.

Both publications have one forecaster that predict the weather for the entire country. They both use formulas developed 200 years ago by their founders. The forecasters have made slight adjustments over the years, but the predictions are still based on the original formula.

The forecasters stay in the shadows. The Farmers' Almanac goes as far as to give its forecaster a pseudonym, Caleb Weatherbee.

The Old Farmer's Almanacs' forecaster goes by his real name of Michael Steinberg, but he is rarely seen.

Steinberg has been with the Old Farmer's Almanac for 18 years, Weatherbee with the Farmer's Almanac for 25.

“Weatherbee is the only one that knows the true formula,” said Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the Farmers' Almanac. “It's kind of like Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It works so well for us, and we don't want to give away all of our secrets.”

The formulas used by the almanacs are based on a few simple principles.

The Old Farmer's Almanac's formula uses solar science, meteorology and climatology.

The Farmers' Almanac uses a mathematical and astronomical formula that also uses solar activity, in addition to tidal action and position of the planets.

Sarah Perreault, senior associate editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, is quick to rebuff people who think the almanac makes random guesses.

“We are working with a national meteorologist. It's not just us sitting in the editorial office throwing darts at a board or anything like that,” Perreault said.

While there are the two major almanacs that are still around today, there used to be hundreds in the early 1800s.

“Basically, you printed a Bible, and you printed Farmer's Almanacs,” Duncan said.

However, as time went on the Old Farmer's Almanac, founded in 1792, and the Farmer's Almanac, which began publishing in 1818, separated from all the rest.

When the two almanacs began, they were the ones that people went to for weather.

Ronnie Rice, co-owner and manager of the Charleston division of Carolina Eastern, a company that provides guidance to farmers around the state of South Carolina, said that new technology and 24/7 weather coverage has lessened the impact of the almanacs.

“Twenty years ago, it wasn't the law of the land, so to speak, in farming, but it was used in a big, big way,” Rice said. “Farmers still scan it, but they don't completely sink their teeth into that information. There are so many other sources of pretty doggone good factual information that's on target.”

Now, the National Weather Service has become the go-to place for weather forecasts.

Because of this, the almanac's audience has begun to change. Duncan said they are getting more urban people who are just curious about the publication.

The two almanacs have learned to work alongside each other during the past 200 years. They both come out at around the same time, and many people tend to confuse the two almanacs. With that said, the publications keep their distance.

“We have a very friendly rivalry, I would say, with them,” Perreault said. “But no, we're never in touch.”

Duncan added, “I think we help each other and hinder each other at the same time.”

Duncan also said she keeps an eye on the Old Farmer's Almanac and all that it does, including comparing its forecasts to the other almanac.

However, Perreault said that she does not keep up with the Farmers' Almanac.

“Our readership is a lot larger and we're more well-known, so I would think that they maybe do that for us,” Perreault said. “We're kind of like the big brother, you know. They're the younger brother, we're the big brother.”

While the Old Farmer's Almanac may have seniority over the Farmers' Almanac, Duncan believes her publication is a good choice for people around the country.

“Our Farmers' Almanac, I believe, is more family oriented,” Duncan said. “In the past several years, we have gotten into things like how to grow your own kind of foods, how to live organically and naturally, and I think theirs is a little more quirkier and historical.”

The history is something that Perreault believes sets the Old Farmer's Almanac apart.

“We're the oldest continuously published periodical in North America,” Perreault said. “They've been around for hundreds of years as well, but this is our 222nd edition, so sometimes longevity makes people trust in you.”

Both publications appear to be in pretty good shape, with the Farmers' Almanac boasting a total circulation of 7 million, according to Duncan, and the Old Farmer's Almanac printing 2 million copies per year. Both publications have solid Web presences as well. The Old Farmer's Almanac website has about 780,000 weekly visitors while the Farmers' Almanac has around 180,000.

Something they have both proven they can do is make accurate predictions when it comes to the weather, particularly the 2014 winter season.

“We pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one,” Duncan said.

Kyle Heck is a University of South Carolina School of Journalism student.

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