George Washington was serving his second term as the nation's first president when The Old Farmer's Almanac was first published in 1792. Back then, Americans read it for facts like the rising and setting times of the sun and moon. Publisher John Pierce says the almanac, by definition, started as a calendar of the heavens. "So it's a calendar. It begins with that astronomical information that was so important to farmers and fishermen when it first started."
There were other almanacs in the 1700's. But Pierce says the first publisher of the Old Farmer's Almanac, Robert B. Thomas, made this one special by including weather forecasts. "No one had thought to do that. That became a mark of distinction. People looked to Robert B.Thomas' 'Farmer's Almanac,' not only for the accuracy of its charts on the rising and setting of the moon, but also, the weather forecasts."
Thomas claimed to have a secret formula for weather forecasting and, Pierce says, to this day, the Almanac stands by it. He explains that the formula Thomas used relied on observations of sunspots. "We still use that information as the beginning of our technique for forecasting the weather," he says.
But while Thomas relied on a manual count of sunspots back in 1792, today, The Old Farmer's Almanac gets its information from satellites that observe the sun. "[We] have a solar scientist who advises us on what the anticipated solar activity will look like for the year ahead. Then we look at the history of weather for that time period, and then we also use traditional meteorological techniques to write our forecasts for the next 12 months. So it's done scientifically, but according to a formula that not many meteorologists, say, would ascribe to."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Almanac, which has a circulation of more than 12 million readers, is not popular with meteorologists when it comes to the weather forecasts. "The Farmer's Almanac is doing something that we know scientifically can't be done," says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society. Seitter says it's impossible for the Almanac's editors to know what the weather will be like on a certain date next year when meteorologists can't say for sure what it'll be like in ten days.
Seitter points out that today's forecasters don't focus on solar activity. To predict a thunderstorm, for example, he says they study the atmosphere and all the "millions of parcels of air, moving through the thunderstorm system that will have water vapor that will condense into clouds, maybe rain, maybe hail. All those processes, physical processes, have equations that govern them," he says. "Computers keep track of all those pieces of what's making up the thunderstorm: collectively understanding how that thunderstorm is developing, where it's going to go, whether it will get stronger or less strong, through extraordinarily complicated mathematics and extraordinarily complicated programs. The advent of extremely powerful computers has allowed those forecasts to become very, very accurate."
Still, Seitter says he understands why the public pays attention to Almanac weather forecasts. "Some people even take a little bit of perverse joy," he says with a smile, "if the experts get something wrong and an underdog upstart gets it right. Getting back to just our community, the number of times we would have a dramatic failure and the Farmer's Almanac, by sheer chance, gets it right, is extremely small."
Its weather forecasts aside, Almanac publisher John Pierce says its varied articles on farming, gardening, astronomy, and astrology, even essays on human interest topics like how to whistle and how to impress the opposite sex, still charm generations of readers.
"When I meet people out and about and tell them what I do for a living, [that] I work for The Old Farmer's Almanac, I have to say, 99.99 percent always smile. And then when you show them the cover, they say, 'I love The Old Farmer's Almanac.' They may not have even read it."
Pierce believes there's such a favorable response because this is a dangerous world we live in, in many ways. So people crave the comfort and security of something that can continue to do what it's done for 215 consecutive issues. It becomes a powerful representative of continuity.
The 2007 Old Farmer's Almanac, continuing a fall ritual, generates good feelings for millions of readers and a bit of controversy among meteorologists.