Old-School Forecasting; Farmers Almanacs' Low-Tech Appeal

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Farmers aren't turning to farmers almanacs anymore. At least not to forecast the weather for their crops. While they turn to radio, television and the Internet for weather advice, modern-day farmers read the almanacs more for nostalgia and to check information against other sources.

"When the almanac started, there was no other source available to them. ... People relied on the information," says Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the Farmers' Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine. Today, "I think people look to the almanac for nostalgia and times gone by," she says.

Farmers, along with gardeners, weather watchers, stargazers and those planning activities, can refer to the farmers almanacs' long-range weather forecasts, astronomical data and helpful hints for the home and garden.

The Farmers' Almanac, founded in 1818, and the Old Farmer's Almanac, founded in 1792, use different formulas to develop the weather forecasts and astronomical calculations that provide a resource for gardeners and farmers to use from planting to harvest.

"Many people swear by the results they get, and they follow this forecast," says Mrs. Duncan, a resident of Franklin Township, N.J. "I look at the best times to garden and try to follow it when I start my garden. I find when I do, I get pretty good results."

Mauretta Jacobson, co-owner of Jacobson Tree Farm in Leesburg, Va., says she and her husband, LeRoy, have their own form of an almanac. "We plant in the spring when we feel it is convenient for us and the weather is right," she says.

The Jacobsons shape their Christmas-tree crop at the end of June until they are finished in July or August, she says. They work on the crop "when we feel the time is best," she says.

The Farmers' and Old Farmer's almanacs use weather-forecasting formulas based on methods that date from the periodicals' beginnings. Caleb Weatherbee, the pseudonym for the current forecaster at the Farmers' Almanac, keeps the formula locked in his desk and in his mind, basing his forecasts on sunspot activity, the tidal action of the moon and other astronomical and mathematical factors, Mrs. Duncan says.

The formula used by the Old Farmer's Almanac also is "a secret and is locked in a black box," says Janice Stillman, editor of the Dublin, N.H., periodical.

The "box" is accessed by Michael Steinberg, the sole meteorologist for the almanac. He employs meteorology, the study of atmosphere, and climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns, to forecast weather 18 months ahead. He considers solar science in making the forecast, studying how solar activity and sunspots, which are magnetic storms appearing as dark spots on the surface of the sun, can influence weather activity.

"Our weatherman takes the study he's made of the sun, of solar cycles over the long term ... and interprets that using meteorology to come up with a forecast," Miss Stillman says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in contrast, employs computer models to provide daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal and annual forecasts. NOAA collects observations of temperature, moisture, wind and pressure from around the world. The observations, along with climatological information and information on the season, time of year, location and other factors, are entered into the computer model to generate the forecasts.

"You start off with an observation, and you create a new set of observations. Its a boot-strapping process," says Edward O'Lenic, meteorologist at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs. …