Ask the Farmer’s Almanac

The Farmer's Almanac offers the answers to such vexing questions as the best days to start logging, the best days to castrate livestock or make sauerkraut. All the while being “useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.” These farmers were photographed in the 1930s in Oskaloosa.

The best days to castrate animals in January are the 6th and 7th.

To begin logging? The 3rd, 4th, 30th or 31st.

To make sauerkraut? The 26th and 27th.

Who says? The phases of the moon … and The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2011.

Started in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas, the almanac has been amusing and informing farmers and non-farmers alike for more than 200 years with a mix of astrology, predictions, wives’ tales and, these days, articles with full-color photographs.

Today’s almanac is put together by a full-time staff plus contributors and is full of information both modern (an article boasts the benefits of antioxidants found in colorful produce) and archaic (the dates previously mentioned were determined by the moon).

But what’s most amusing about the almanac is that it’s actually seriously helpful to farmers. Just because it claims to be “Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor” doesn’t mean it isn’t used as a tool by real farmers.

Jennifer Smith, horticulture extension agent with the Douglas County Kansas State Extension Office, says that her father, a commercial vegetable farmer, bought an almanac every year. And moreover, he scrawled down each month’s important dates on his calendar straight from the almanac. Though she’s not sure if this method helped improve his successes or not, she does say that sometimes the almanac amazes her with its accuracy.

“Sometimes I think it’s more accurate than what science would tell us that it should be,” Smith says. “I think it was last year when a lot of the weather people were predicting a mild winter and the Farmer’s Almanac was saying we were going to have a severe winter with a lot of precipitation. And they were correct about that.”

Stu Shafer, the farmer behind Sandheron Farm in Oskaloosa and professor at Johnson County Community College, says he’s also impressed with the accuracy of the weather predications by region.

“The weather forecasts have some interest because they seem to be about as accurate as anything, and they are fun because of the supposedly secret method they use going way back,” Shafer says.

This year’s forecast calls for a cold, dry winter and a summer that’s also dry and on the cool side.

So, what’s in the almanac besides the weather? Here’s a what’s what of the almanac:

It is an almanac, after all

The book is divided into a number of sections including gardening, food, weather, regional weather, astronomy, calendar, nature, amusement, health & home, farming, husbandry, sports, tide and time corrections, sports and classifieds.

Reader’s digest

Articles in the 2011 almanac include everything from recipes for Dutch ovens to the history and use of the scythe (“Scythe Matters: All About The Best Cutting-Edge Tool Ever”) to the aforementioned write-up on the antioxidants in certain fruits and veggies. There’s even an article with full-color photographs on “plantimals” — plants that look like animals. Really.

Dates, dates, dates

Yes, the almanac publishes the best days to castrate animals and make sauerkraut, but it also publishes the best days each month for anyone looking to grow something. For example, the bets days to plant above-ground crops in April are a very reasonable 10th and 11th.

Pleasant degree of humor

Also in this year’s almanac are 25 uncommon cures for the common headache. Among them, “weave a match into your hair,” “boil cottonweed in lye and smoke it,” and the vomit-inducing suggestion to “form fresh cow manure into a heat-producing poultice and put it on your head.”

If you do plan on getting a copy of the almanac, do remember to have some fun with it and use it as an almanac, not a bible, says Smith.

“I would say that it could be a fun use as a guide that you maybe don’t follow 100 percent of the time,” Smith says. “If it’s not inconveniencing you to follow some of the things, then it’s a fun way to garden. You just don’t want to get your hopes up on things being perfect because you planted them on specific days.”