Like the rest of us poor lost Yankee souls in southern New England, I’m surrounded on all sides by what amounts to a glacier’s worth of white desolation. Record-setting snow dumped in back-to-back-to-back winter storms with such density that public transportation in Boston simply gave up and went south, and the weighty oppression of the stuff was such that not even drunken townies in Southie could be heard more than a few feet away.
We are a region caught unawares, surprised with our pants so far down that there’s frostbite nipping at our you-knows, and no one—from spray-tanned cable TV weather wizards to the feds at the National Weather Service to the plethora of online forecasters, all of them with bleeding edge technology and fancy algorithms at their beck and call—had much in the way of forewarning.
There was, however, one place that got it right.
Nailed it, in fact. Quietly, casually, and without aplomb, just like they’ve been doing for almost exactly 200 years solid:
The Farmers’ Almanac.
That digest-sized annual tome available at hardware stores and mom-and-pop convenience shops, the very same one that caused a good number of the elderly Yankees up here to smile a smug, “I told you stupid kids with your faces stuck in your phones that this was gonna happen, but you were too busy swiping right to care. And now you’re gonna freeze and wish you’d bought a shovel and candles two weeks ago” smile when the rest of us schmucks turned up at their shops to cop winter survival gear.
Not only did they get it right, just as they claim to around 85 percent of the time—they actually made this winter’s predictions almost two years ago, using much the same technique they did back in the 1800s.
“It’s like an ancient Chinese secret,” says the Almanac’s managing editor, Sandi Duncan gravely, before laughing. “No, I’m kidding. It is an old, old formula that dates back to when the Almanac was first founded back in 1818, it’s a mathematical and astronomical formula. It takes things like sun spot activity, position of the moon, the phase of the moon, and a variety of other factors into consideration.”
Even Duncan doesn’t know the details, which are passed on only to the venerable publication’s resident weatherman, Caleb Weatherbee, a shady, pseudonymous fellow who has had a byline in the book for two centuries.
“He’s a real person, but he has a false name to keep him secret,” Duncan explained. “We’ve only had seven weather prognosticators actually, in almost 200 years. So when you take on the job you have to love the weather, and you have to love what you do. It’s pretty much a secure position.”
When pressed for more details on the man behind the mystery, Duncan clammed up quick. She’ll admit that he’s in the United States, but as to whether he’s a weather professional, or anything else, you can almost hear her upper lip stiffen.
“I can’t answer these questions.”
When the current edition of the Farmers’ Almanac dropped last August, popular website livescience.com took them to task for their dire winter predictions, even getting meteorologist Anthony Artusa, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, to weigh in.
“We don’t see anything offhand that would suggest it would be a really brutal winter,” he scoffed.
Who’s laughing now?
“We like to keep them on their toes,” admitted Duncan, laughing again. “In a day and age of high-tech radar systems and computer tracking technology, it’s nice to be reminded, and the Farmers’ Almanac reminds all of us, that there’s one thing, weather, it’s not 100 percent predictable. We’re not in control of it; it’s Mother Nature.”
And while the formula they use has changed very little over the centuries—centuries!—the Almanac itself has managed to change with the times.
“It’s changed so much,” Duncan told me, even since she herself took the job in 1994. “Now we have online, we have social media, we have a couple calendars. It’s become more of a brand rather than just the Almanac.”
Duncan informs me that farmer’s almanacs were once the most printed publications save for Bibles, and that they came on the scene in the 1600s. Currently, there are two main ones here in the United States, her Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmers’ Almanac, which is printed just a state away and predates hers by a couple decades.
Two hundred years is a long time, and it probably feels even longer in today’s media economy.
Duncan has been delving into back issues for the 2017 200th anniversary issue, and in doing so is having some cultural differences put into perspective.
“Recipes will call for different things, like lard, and they would never give exact measurements,” Duncan noted. “It would just say ‘add the butter’ and you wouldn’t know how much butter. One of my favorite ones is from the old tips section, ‘If you think somebody’s dead, put a mirror in front of their face.’ It’s so funny to see how life has changed, and how the content has changed, ’cause there’s other ways to tell if someone is dead, thank you.”
While the print edition remains “steady” in this digital era, the circulation is certainly down from the 6 million or so it once enjoyed—a number it attained via selling copies to places like banks as promotional items, with their logos or advertisements printed on the covers. The Almanac, though, stays true to its vision without being hokey.
“Over the years we’ve evolved as people moved away from the farm, but we do have gardening tips and information for any type of farmers, whether they’re growing something out on their balcony or in their backyard,” she claimed. “I like to say that we were always green, even before green was en vogue."
Being green before it was en vogue is good, but being right about this winter before it happened is a miracle.