Discovering the lore and tradition of the Farmer’s Almanac

By Kristen Tribe | Published Saturday, October 12, 2013

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I probably first heard of an almanac in an elementary social studies class.

It was a reference book I never really used, and the idea of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” seemed antiquated and of little interest to me.

But a month or so ago, a TV news station reported that the almanac was predicting a cold, harsh winter.

Kristen Tribe

Kristen Tribe

My husband was preparing to plant a garden, and we were awaiting the arrival of 26 chicks, so the prediction piqued his curiosity and made him wonder what else was in this fabled book.

We now have our very own copy and have browsed through it, noting points of interest and shaking our heads in disbelief at some of the information, wondering if people actually abide by its instructions.

By definition, an almanac records and predicts astronomical events, tides, weather and other phenomena with respect to time. It tells you basic facts like dates of full moons and sunrise and sunset times, but it also makes predictions based on astrological signs, which is where I become a bit skeptical.

“The Old Farmer’s Almanac” was started by Robert B. Thomas in 1792 and has been published annually ever since. It’s the oldest continuously published periodical in North America, and his words still guide production of the publication in Dublin, N.H.

“Our main endeavour is to be useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor.”

Most of the book is a farming calendar. Each month has a chart outlining celestial events, holidays, noteworthy historical events, folklore, high tide heights, civil holidays, religious feasts and even a weather prediction rhyme. The symbols and codes used make it look more like hieroglyphics, impossible to interpret without the detailed key.

Articles are also interspersed throughout the book, and topics include gardening, food, astronomy and astrology. There’s a handful of humorous features including a reader essay contest and funny submissions. The bulk of the content revolves around farm life, as you would expect.

Perhaps the most entertaining segment is “Best Days for 2014.”

The list includes the best days throughout the year for activities like planting and harvesting crops, cutting hay and breeding animals, among others. These suggestions are made according to astrological signs. The almanac lists best days for all of these activities in every month of 2014.

It even gives suggested dates for starting a weight-loss plan, quitting smoking or cutting your hair. According to the almanac, there’s no point in starting those New Year’s resolutions Jan. 1. The best days in January to quit smoking or start a weight-loss diet are the 19th and 24th. In fact, the only activities the almanac recommends starting Jan. 1 are logging or setting posts and pouring concrete.

If you want to cut your hair to discourage growth, do that on Jan. 22 or 23. A cut to encourage growth should be done on Jan. 4, 5, 9 or 10. The almanac recommends camping on Jan. 26 or 27, slaughtering livestock Jan. 24 or 25 and weaning animals and children on Jan. 19 or 24.

I need to get my teeth cleaned in April, and according to the almanac, I should schedule that on April 11 or 12.

The book also offers measurement conversions. The most helpful seem to be things like pints to quarts or teaspoons to tablespoons, but they also have conversions for scruples to grains or hogsheads to butts, just in case you need to know.

Another page of interest is that which features the gestation and mating tables. You name the animal, and it will tell you the proper age for first mating, period of fertility and period of gestation – helpful if you’re new to farming.

My son’s favorite section is “Best Fishing Days and Times.” I’m sure in the months ahead he’ll pore over the page and make plans for fishing trips. The dates listed are all when the moon is between new and full, so mark your calendars now.

The almanac also makes very specific, bold predictions about the weather – the feature that originally piqued our interest. The winter prediction for our region is “temperatures slightly colder than normal … with precipitation and snowfall a bit above normal in Oklahoma and north of the Metroplex.”

It even predicts a white Christmas for North Texas with snow sometime Dec. 20-25. We have it highlighted.

This prediction will determine our future faith in the almanac.

If it snows, we’ll be firm believers. If not, it’ll be pushed aside as poppycock, albeit entertaining reading.

There must be something to the predictions, though because it’s remained a viable publication for more than 230 years. This year the almanac is even delving into digital publication – a unique blend of tradition and technology. They already offer several apps, bringing almanac insight directly to your smart phone or tablet and now, in addition to its annual book, the almanac will publish monthly editions electronically only, a significant change for its core audience.

As we experiment with gardening and animals at our little homefront, it’s nice to have these type of resources at our fingertips.

But a white Christmas predicted this far out – I’ll believe it when I see it.

Kristen Tribe is the Messenger’s news editor.

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