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The Old Farmer's Almanac still resonates with readers

Even in the Internet age, readers buy the folksy Old Farmer's Almanac for its 'secret formula' to predict the weather and advice on the best day to slaughter a pig.

By Adrian HigginsThe Washington Post / November 3, 2009



Here are three words you might expect to cause instant seizure with an Internet search engine: Old. Farmer's. Almanac. And yet, those canny New England Yankees who publish the annual Old Farmer's Almanac have put out No. 218 in seeming blithe indifference to the seismic shifts that have rocked traditional print media in the digital age.

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The almanac ($5.99 at www.almanac.com), as it happens, predicts earthquakes and a lot of other natural phenomena, and describes how we should live with them, advising on such things as the moment to start a diet and the best day to slaughter a pig (for you, presumably, not the hog). It all has to do with the alignment of the firmament, or something like that.

Its philosophy is a bit weird and wacky, but it reaches deep into the agrarian roots and folkloric traditions of America, and it still resonates with more than 3 million readers.

An almanac is an astronomic and astrological calendar of the heavens. That was the core of the first almanac, published by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, and remains the heart of the current one. The look is still old — cheap paper, black ink, and lots of charts and symbols — though I wish the editors would go back to styling the letter "s'' as "f." Mr. Thomas admonished that May "is a very bufy month with farmers and gardners (sic). Uncover your afparagus bed. Turn your young cattle into the wood lands, fo as to fave your paftures." Mr. Thomas was one fmart cookie.

And what of the pastures of our weather? Long-range weather prediction is the stock in trade of almanacs, and though the Old Farmer's Almanac claims with a straight face 80 percent accuracy, and its rival, the Farmers' Almanac, 80 to 85 percent, their forecasts for the coastal mid-Atlantic region this winter are quite different. The Old Farmer's Almanac, published in Dublin, N.H., predicts a cold and snowy season; the Farmers' Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine, forecasts one of normal temperatures and precipitation.

Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, says that "we use satellite data, state-of-the-art information. It's just the interpretation of that information and the inclusion of activity of the sun into our forecast that distinguishes us from just about everybody else."

Did we mention the ace in the hole? "We have a secret formula," she says, "the calculations of which even I don't know."

The Farmers' Almanac ($5.99 at store.farmersalmanac.com), which uses its own top-secret formula, mentions that in 2007 its winter forecast was even more accurate than Punxsutawney Phil's, contradicting the Pennsylvania groundhog in forecasting six more weeks of winter.

I agreed to meet Ms. Stillman, wondering if she would arrive looking like Betsy Ross, but her hair was close-cropped and she wore a chartreuse designer leather jacket. She gave me copies of the 2010 almanac, but the one I was salivating for was the 2009 edition, so I could check its accuracy.