(CNN)The story goes that, in 1815, Old Farmer’s Almanac founding editor Robert B. Thomas was interrupted by a boy wondering what to put down for the weather forecast of July 13, 1816.
In some versions, Thomas is ill with the flu. In others, he’s simply preoccupied with other work. Whatever the reason, the entry for that day — perhaps Thomas’ suggestion, perhaps one from an impish interloper — was supposedly “rain, sleet and snow.” In July.
It so happened that 1816 was “the year without a summer,” thanks to the eruption of Mount Tambora, and it did, indeed, sleet and snow that season, even in July. The forecast is alleged to have made the almanac’s reputation.
Nevertheless, the almanac has become a closely watched predictor of weather, particularly winter weather. It recently released its forecast for 2016-17: It “forewarns that exceptionally cold, if not downright frigid weather will predominate over parts of the Northern Plains, Great Lakes, Midwest, Ohio Valley, the Middle Atlantic, Northeast, and New England this winter.”
In press materials, the almanac claimed 96.3% accuracy for its “2015 predictions of a bleak and biting winter.” Stillman says the figure is based on an analysis of the almanac’s forecasts of its 16 regions on a monthly basis.
Meteorologists and weather experts don’t buy it.
“Both (the Old Farmer’s Almanac and its competition, the Farmers’ Almanac) claim high accuracy rates (around 80 percent) but have never published evidence backing them up. They lack transparency and keep their methods ‘closely guarded,’ ” wrote the Washington Post’s Jason Samenow in 2013.
Added Dennis Mersereau of Gawker’s “The Vane,” “The Old Farmer’s Almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy.”
Will it be wrong?
Stillman stands by the almanac’s forecast.
“We are not really expecting that to happen,” she says.
Even if it is wrong, people may not remember the specifics. Hennen points out that the Maine-based Farmers’ Almanac — the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s rival — missed the forecast for the New Jersey-based Super Bowl in 2014, predicting a messy “Storm Bowl.” The actual weather? Close to 50 degrees at kickoff.
(The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also predicted rough weather that day, noted in a comment response on its website that it was “on trend.”)
After all, more than two centuries into its run, there’s still a solid demand for the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Stillman says that about 3 million copies are printed, and the title has 1.3 million fans on Facebook. Whether for entertainment or information, people read it for everything from gardening tips to holiday lists. (And, yes, weather forecasts.)
“It’s a symbol and manifestation and perpetuation of country values in life,” Stillman said.
Even Hennen is more amused than offended by the attention it brings. He tips his hat — or should that be a nice wool toque? — to the almanac’s longevity, if not its methodology.
“(Long) before meteorologists were putting out their winter predictions, the (Old) Farmer’s Almanac has been doing this,” he said. “I think people remember that. Nowadays, even meteorologists are putting out outlooks for ‘is it going to be a busy hurricane season?’ ‘Is it going to be a bad winter?’ I think we’re just kind of new to the game, whereas the (Old) Farmer’s Almanac has been doing it forever.”