Weather can change quickly, which is why — as many meteorologists will tell you — it's difficult to make forecasts even on a weekly basis. Somehow, though, the "Farmers' Almanac" has been making long-range weather predictions months in advance for hundreds of years. The accuracy of these forecasts is far from perfect, and the science behind them is largely a mystery, but more than two centuries in, the "Farmers' Almanac" remains a popular resource for both entertainment and advice. Here's a brief overview of its history.
A tale of two almanacs
Most people refer to the "Farmers' Almanac" as if there's only one, but there are actually two different versions still in publication: "Farmers' Almanac" and "The Old Farmer's Almanac." (The former also produces an annual Canadian edition.) They're similar in that they offer yearly weather predictions — along with fun facts, stories, recipes, humor, and other practical recommendations — but they differ in the way they make those predictions.
"The Old Farmer's Almanac" relies on a mix of solar science, prevailing weather patterns, and a study of the atmosphere, while the "Farmers' Almanac" uses solar science, lunar tidal action, and planetary positions. Both almanacs largely keep their exact processes and formulas a secret, though, so only a few people really know how they do what they do.
"The Old Farmer's Almanac"
"The Old Farmer's Almanac" — which is, in fact, the older of the two almanacs — debuted during George Washington's first term in 1792, which makes it the oldest continuously published periodical in the United States. Of course, it wasn't considered "old" back then. Originally, the almanac was just called "The Farmer's Almanac." It didn't add the "Old" until its 56th birthday in 1848, under its second editor, John H. Jenks.
Its first and founding editor, Robert B. Thomas, started the business in Dublin, New Hampshire. At the time, there was fierce competition in the almanac industry, but Thomas' product quickly gained a following. What made "The [Old] Farmer's Almanac" stand out from the rest was its useful advice, entertaining humor, and, of course, its uncanny predictions. Historically, "The Old Farmer's Almanac" has claimed 80% accuracy with its forecasts, which are made 18 months in advance.
Today the almanac is still produced in Dublin, New Hampshire. During its 228-year existence, it has had 13 editors, most recently Janice Stillman, the first female editor of the publication.
"The Old Farmer's Almanac" saw its first real rival in 1818, when the premiere issue of "Farmers' Almanac" was published in Morristown, New Jersey. Like the older almanac, the newer "Farmers' Almanac" offered useful advice, humor, and weather predictions. Also like its predecessor, it keeps its forecasting formula a closely guarded secret. It even uses a pseudonym, "Caleb Weatherbee," for its real-life weather prognosticators.
To date, seven editors have presided over "Farmers' Almanac." The first was poet, astronomer, and teacher David Young; the most recent is Peter Geiger, son of former editor Ray Geiger. Ray edited the almanac from 1933 to 1994, during which time he increased circulation by several million and moved the company's headquarters from New Jersey to Maine.
Currently, three different versions of "Farmers' Almanac" are published throughout North America. There's the standard retail version that you can find in supermarkets and bookstores; there's a promotional version to help companies market their products or services; and there's a Canadian version that has weather predictions and articles specific to Canada. Of course, you can also find content on the "Farmers' Almanac" website.
Both "Farmers' Almanac" and "The Old Farmer's Almanac" rely on secret formulas centered around solar activity, specifically sunspots, to generate their predictions. They've claimed 80% accuracy in the past, but that number has been disputed by the scientific community.
According to a study at the University of Illinois, "The Old Farmer's Almanac" is really 51.9% accurate with precipitation forecasts and 50.7% accurate with monthly temperature estimates. Its "accuracy" is generally chalked up to chance, although devoted fans might argue otherwise. This may be due in some part to confirmation bias: When the almanacs are right, people find it incredible; when they're wrong, people forget.
Still fun to read
Despite scrutiny from the scientific community regarding the accuracy of their forecasts, "The Old Farmer's Almanac" and the newer "Farmers' Almanac" still appeal to a wide audience because of the practical information and fun articles that fill every page of their annual editions. Even if their weather predictions fall short sometimes, it's helpful to have resources like a general planting calendar, meteor shower guides, and fishing tips written in an easy-to-read, entertaining format.
Original publisher Robert B. Thomas probably put it best when he said, "Our main endeavor is to be useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor.” That's been the key to success for both almanacs for more than 200 years — and counting.