Growing up in Weston, Connecticut I remember well a little pamphlet that hung over the shelf in the garden shed, attached to a nail by a string threaded through its conveniently predrilled hole. The pamphlet was well-worn and covered with my father’s dirty fingerprints as he often consulted it. A new one replaced the old one every year. The cover always had a cameo of Benjamin Franklin, its first publisher.
The title was The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and my father swore by it. As did several million other Americans, who wanted to be guided in the ways of gardening, know what to expect weather-wise for the year and find out about new seeds and ways to get better harvests of existing crops. If you were a sailor, like my father, you would also consult the Almanac for the tides, as he did in Westport, where our boat was moored.
My father also read the Almanac for pure pleasure. There were short stories, interesting aphorisms, jokes and even amusing cartoons. I remember my father hooting from the garage soon after the pamphlet arrived in the mail. I might have been seven. When I asked him what was so funny, he showed me a cartoon. I didn’t get it as he tried his best to explain it. But as he knew well, being a professional cartoonist as well as a gardener and a sailor, if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac is the contemporary version of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanak, first published by Franklin on December 28, 1732. Franklin published the Almanak for 25 years, selling as many as 10,000 copies annually and bringing in a tidy sum while enriching his reputation and popularity as well. When Franklin’s brother James died, Ben sent his widow 500 copies free so that she could make enough money to support herself.
My father was a huge fan of Ben Franklin. He told me about Franklin’s many inventions and accomplishments, besides devising the Franklin stove and adding his signature to the Declaration of Independence. Franklin was an outstanding diplomat and a philosopher, with a wicked sense of humor. My father especially liked that a Jones grandfather had been a fisherman on Nantucket about the same time as Franklin was flying his kite and discovering electricity.
Historical as well as personal stories are still a big part of the Almanac’s appeal. One from the 2014 issue is a doozy if true. In 1942, a German spy was caught after being put ashore by a U-boat on Long Island. A copy of the Almanac was found in the soldier’s pocket. The FBI surmised that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts. The US was unwittingly supplying the enemy with valuable information.
Poor Richard’s Almanak became The Farmer’s Almanac in 1792, during George Washington’s first term. (The ‘old’ was added later.) It too was an immediate success, and by its second year of circulation subscriptions had tripled. The affordable sixpence price remained the same for decades. The 2022 issue is $8.95. It has 288 pages and lots of ads. Yankee Publishing, the present owners, says the Almanac is profitable. It has gone digital with a Kindle version, and there is a hardback too. But the little hole punched into the top left corner is still there in the paper edition. My father would opt for that one, being a hands-on kind of guy.
I’ve continued my father’s fascination with the quirky pamphlet. As soon as it arrives, I turn immediately to the food pages, which now offer recipes from readers who are rewarded if their recipes are accepted. I keep trying. The 2020 challenge was to combine two classic appetizers into one phenomenal bite. The $300 first prize went to Buffalo Deviled Eggs. The 2021 challenge? A family favorite using only four or five ingredients, excluding salt and pepper. The winner was Apricot Sriracha-Glazed Baby Back Ribs from a reader in Wrentham, Massachusetts. She used Cajun spice blend, sriracha sauce and soy sauce for seasonings. The 2022 challenge requires a winning way with bananas.
The Almanac welcomes readers’ anecdotes and pleasantries. H.O. Shelby from North Carolina reports that ‘according to the Consumer Safety Commission, pizza-related injuries are now up to around 4,000 a year and range from pizza-cutter wounds and roof-of-the-mouth fork stabbings to delivery people tripping on stairs and a young woman over zealously swallowing her tongue ring amidst the mushrooms’.
The Old Farmers’ Almanac claims its weather forecasting is 80 percent accurate. The 2019 issue got caught up in a snowstorm kerfuffle with its rival, The Farmers’ Almanac. Franklin’s projected a cold and snowy winter for the Northeast, while its rival, which claims an 80.5 percent accuracy, said winter would be mild. Both claim they use secret formulas to determine the weather. The 2022 Almanac apologizes for missing the 2021 forecast by 5 percent.
As for the 2022 forecast in my neck of the woods, the Pacific Southwest: winter will be cooler and drier than normal, with below-normal mountain snows. The coldest temperatures will occur in late December, late January, mid-to-late February and late March into early spring. The hottest periods will be in mid-June and mid-to-late August. September and October will be warmer and rainier than normal. Let’s hope the Almanac is right about the rainfall. We sure need it!
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2021 World edition.