Weather Channeling

Weather Channeling

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which claims to be North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, is predicting a warmer-than-average winter, with more rain than snow. But local farmers say they don’t put much stock in the almanac’s forecast. “Honestly, we just have to take it as it comes,” says Liz Hindinger of Hindinger Farm. Her family has been cultivating land on a ridge in Hamden for 125 years, but when it comes to planning for winter weather, they put their trust in real-time meteorological reports. Still, when Hindinger learns the almanac claims its forecasts last year were 83% accurate, she laughs. “Maybe I should start paying more attention!”

Over at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, the most trusted weather source is the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), operations assistant Becca Toms says. The farm also hosts a station that collects data for commercial weather service Weather Underground.

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While today’s farmers have plenty of modern technology at their disposal, farmers in centuries past relied more heavily on almanacs like Old Farmer’s. A handful of periodical almanacs were written or published in New Haven in the 18th century, according to a Connecticut-wide list compiled in 1914 by Albert Carlos Bates for the American Antiquarian Society. Among them were An Astronomical Diary, authored between 1754 to 1759 by founding father and New Haven’s first mayor Roger Sherman and later by others. Hosea Stafford, a pen name for Yale mathematics professor Nehemiah Strong, wrote Stafford’s Almanack from 1778 to 1804. Many more were published in other Connecticut cities and towns.

According to Marion Barber Stowell’s book Early American Almanacs (1977), the almanac was a fixture in most New England homes along with the Bible, The New England Primer “and perhaps a few sermons.” Her claim that “most owners literally wore out their almanacs” is borne out by some of the examples in the collection at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library. Stored in archival folders and boxes due to their fragility, they provide a fascinating look into what 18th-century New Haven residents were reading about the weather and other topics.

Its binding sewn and resewn, its edges ragged and laced with doodles, a 1774 copy of the 26-page An Astronomical Diary includes a list of the “principal fixt Stars” with their magnitudes and declinations, tide charts, calendars, weather predictions, phases of the moon and poetry on a two-page spread for each month. In his introductory note to readers, author Joseph Perry described the general audience he hoped to reach, explaining,

I have not troubled my empirical Brethren with any thing upon the medical science; nor Fanatics with their enthusiasm; nor the Vulgar with Politics; therefore, hope for their better wishes, and the Public’s favourable reception of this work, of their sincere friend, and Humble, obedient Servant, Joseph Perry.

After devoting one page to each of the months, Stafford’s Almanack ends with several pages of advice and information such as “Rules for preserving Health in Eating and Drinking,” “A Geographical Discription of Connecticut,” “A Method of rendering Old Age comfortable” and “Necessary Hints to those that would be Rich.” The 1783 copy features a count of “the Number of Inhabitants in the State of Connecticut, February 1, 1782; and also of the Indians and Negroes.” New Haven’s population, including nine towns, was recorded, in chart form, as “1,450 males above 50; 4,776 males above 16 and under 50; 5,940 males under 16; 12,926 females; total of Whites 25,112; Indians and Negroes 885.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac traces its origins to the same era as Stafford’s and An Astronomical Diary. First published in Boston in 1792, now based in New Hampshire, today’s most popular almanac seems to follow the thinking of New Haven’s Perry, with a stated aim of “keeping things fun and practical.” It offers up the same kinds of information as its bygone peers: astronomy, calendars, folklore, advice and that famous long-term weather forecast, reportedly based on climatology, meteorology and a modification of founder Robert B. Thomas’s “secret formula” involving sunspots and solar activity.

If The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s forecasting for the winter of 2018-19 turns out to be right, both Hindinger and Toms say it could be good news. Some snow is helpful for insulating the ground and protecting the soil, they agree, but Toms, for one, would be happy to forego one of those “super, super cold winters with lots of strong winds.”

Regardless of what Mother Nature brings, farm work goes on. At Massaro, cold-hardy crops like kale, arugula, bok choy, mixed greens, lettuce, spinach and carrots will be grown in “high tunnels,” temporary greenhouses made of metal frames with a plastic covering. The Hindingers will focus on pruning, equipment repair and planning for next season. And after the winter? The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a drier than usual spring. That sounds good to Hindinger. “We can control that,” she says. “We can add water, but we cannot take it away.”

Whether the 2019 almanac’s weather predictions will bear out is anybody’s guess. All we can count on is winter followed by spring. Or, as an enthusiastic ditty from the 1774 edition of An Astronomical Diary has it,

…How hoary Winter strips the verdant Boughs!
And howling Boreas racks the tott’ring Towers
Hail, Sleet and Snow the frozen Earth o‘erspread
The vegetable Kingdom chill’d and dead!
Till genial Sol revisits northern Climes,
Unbinds the callous Glebe, the Soil refines;
Then pregnant Trees their flow’ry Boughs display,
Transpire rich Fragrance, and adorn the Day!

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image depicts 18th-century almanacs at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library.

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