How Does the Farmers' Almanac Work?


Labor Day may have signaled the unofficial end of summer, but that milestone hasn't done much to cool off the regions that are still sweating in oppressively hot weather. There may be good news on the horizon for fans of chillier weather, though. The recently released 2016 editions of both the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmers' Almanac are predicting unusually frigid conditions across much of the country this winter. 

While these frosty predictions are fun to contemplate on steamy days, they raise an obvious question: How can an annual publication claim to know what this winter will be like months in advance, when my local weatherman can't even tell me with accuracy whether I’ll need my umbrella tomorrow?

The Secret Formula

Historically, almanacs are annual publications that outline the days of the year alongside factors like sunrise and sunset times, holidays, moon phases, and solstices. The calendar hanging on your wall is an example of a simple almanac. Some of the earliest almanacs referenced celestial events to tell readers whether they would have good or bad luck on certain days, much like how we use horoscopes today. By the 17th century, the only publication more popular than almanacs in England was the Bible. Around this time, they began popping up in the America colonies, offering seasonal weather predictions, tips for household management, and entertainment like puzzles and jokes.

The Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1818) and the Old Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1792) are two of the most popular remaining almanacs. The former offers long-range weather predictions made two years in advance. Today it claims to have an annual distribution of more than 2.6 million copies and a readership of 7 million.

Both publications claim to have a roughly 80 percent accuracy rate. Their predictions are the products of top secret mathematical formulas that take into consideration things like sunspot activity, tidal action, and planetary positioning.

Farmers' Almanac managing editor Sandi Duncan says the formula is so secret, even she doesn’t know it, and she’s been with the Farmers’ Almanac for more than 20 years. “I could probably access it if I gave away my first son or something.” The Almanac’s formula is entrusted to just one living being: a weather forecaster who, since the publication’s inception, has gone by the pseudonym “Caleb Weatherbee.” The Almanac’s editors keep everything about Caleb’s true identity a secret. In fact, the only thing they’re actually willing to confirm is that he exists. “He is a real person,” Duncan says. “We don’t want to let everyone know what his real name is. We don’t want anyone badgering Caleb. He’s got an important job so we have to make sure he can continue to do it. ”

An important job, indeed. The current Mr. Weatherbee is the 7th in the publication’s nearly 200-year history. He’s going on 25 years on the job and will likely remain in the position for life. How’d he land such a gig? Duncan says there was “something special in the stars.” Also, he loved weather, and was already a big fan of the Almanac. Being a Caleb Weatherbee takes a very special kind of person, Duncan says, “someone who probably looks beyond the computers and radar systems and appreciates that nature and the weather formula is a little bit more accurate at times for long range forecasts.”

And so we come back to the secret weather formula, which Duncan compares to the confidential concoctions guarded by KFC and Coca-Cola. “We gotta protect it,” she says. “We don’t want anybody figuring it out.”

The Prediction Problem

This is incredibly frustrating for skeptical scientists who, for years, have sought to put the formula to the test. “Anytime you have science that’s shrouded in secrecy or politics, something is not totally kosher,” says Jan Null, a certified consulting meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services. He began reviewing the accuracy rate of the Old Farmers’ Almanac in 2000 after seeing public officials like water managers base their decisions off its predictions. “It’s correct on the order of 25 percent to 30 percent of the time, which is no place close to the 80 percent of the time that is often claimed.”

Part of the problem, he says, is it’s nearly impossible to predict the weather with any kind of accuracy two years in advance, even with today’s advanced technology. “If someone really had the answer to that, think how incredibly rich they would be,” he says. “They would own the commodities market. That person is not out there. No one is showing good skill in long range weather forecasting.” Typically, he says, you can make weather predictions for the next seven days, but beyond that, your chances of being right plummet.

Duncan defends the Almanac’s efforts and cites its predictions for last winter. “We were very accurate,” she says. “We called for a very cold, very snowy winter.” But this is another problem with measuring the Almanac’s accuracy: Its predictions are so broad as to be nearly meaningless. In areas that experience it, winter is cold and snowy by definition.

Fact Checking the Formula 

But surely there is something about the Almanac’s methods that give it some credibility, right? Since I couldn’t get my hands on the actual formula, I asked a few scientists and meteorologists to explain how sunspot activity, lunar cycles, and planetary positioning impact seasonal weather predictions. Herein lies another problem: they don’t. At least, not significantly.

Let’s start with the planets: According to meteorologists with the National Weather Service, our elliptical orbit and the position of the planets has little if any effect on the weather. Here’s what they had to say, smiley face included: “...we are closest to the sun during the northern hemisphere winter, and this obviously does not prevent us from getting cold. :) There is also a slight wobble in the Earth's tilted axis, but the cycle of this wobble is extremely long, on the order of hundreds or thousands of years, and thus would have even less of an effect on seasonal weather conditions.”

What about the ocean tides? “Tides also don’t have any effect on the weather,” says Null. “Sea level goes up and down every six hours, that’s it.”

Of all the methods the Almanac admits to, sunspot activity is the only one scientists say could have some small effect on the weather. “Sunspot activity actually is slightly correlated with Earth's climate,” says Dr. Shane Keating, a physicist with a focus in atmosphere-ocean science.

Basically, the sun's magnetic field switches direction roughly every 11 years. During this period, the number of sunspots varies. Some evidence suggests that periods of fewer sunspots cause at least regional, and possibly global cooling. “However, the effect is fairly small compared with the natural variability of Earth's climate,” Keating says. And if there is an effect, it would be seen in terms of years or decades, not seasons, say NWS meteorologists. “Sunspot activity alone cannot accurately predict whether one's summer will be hot, winter will be cold, etc.”

Duncan admits the Almanac isn’t always right, and recommends people still listen to their local meteorologists. “We’re happy when our forecasts are on the mark, but of course sometimes they’re off the mark and we do admit that,” she says. “Mother Nature likes to remind all of us no matter what kind of weather formula we use to predict the weather that she’s in charge, and sometimes none of us can predict the weather with 100 percent accuracy.”

Big Questions
Why Do Onions Make You Cry?

The onion has been traced back as far as the Bronze Age and was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians (and eaten by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt). Onions were rubbed over the muscles of Roman gladiators, used to pay rent in the Middle Ages, and eventually brought to the Americas, where today we fry, caramelize, pickle, grill, and generally enjoy them.

Many of us burst into tears when we cut into one, too. It's the price we pay for onion-y goodness. Here's a play-by-play breakdown of how we go from grabbing a knife to crying like a baby:

1. When you cut into an onion, its ruptured cells release all sorts of goodies, like allinase enzymes and amino acid sulfoxides. The former breaks the latter down into sulfenic acids.

2. The sulfenic acids, unstable bunch that they are, spontaneously rearrange into thiosulfinates, which produce a pungent odor and at one time got the blame for our tears. The acids are also converted by the LF-synthase enzyme into a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide, also known as the lachrymatory factor (or the crying factor).

3. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide moves through the air and reaches our eyes. The first part of the eye it meets, the cornea, is populated by autonomic motor fibers that lead to the lachrymal glands. When syn-propanethial-S-oxide is detected, all the fibers in the cornea start firing and tell the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.

4. Our eyes automatically start blinking and producing tears, which flushes the irritant away. Of course, our reaction to burning eyes is often to rub them, which only makes things worse since our hands also have some syn-propanethial-S-oxide on them.

It only takes about 30 seconds to start crying after you make the first cut; that's the time needed for syn-propanethial-S-oxide formation to peak.


The onion's relatives, like green onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, also produce sulfenic acids when cut, but they generally have fewer (or no) LF-synthase enzymes and don't produce syn-propanethial-S-oxide.


Since I usually go through a good deal of onions while cooking at home, I've been road testing some of the different methods the internet suggests for reducing or avoiding the effects of the lachrymatory factor. Here's what I tried:

Method #1: Chill or slightly freeze the onions before cutting, the idea being that this will change the chemical reactions and reduce the gas that is released.
Result: The onion from the fridge has me crying just as quickly as room temperature ones. The one that was in a freezer for 30 minutes leaves me dry-eyed for a bit, but by the time I'm done dicing my eyes start to burn a little.

Method #2: Cut fast! Get the chopping over with before the gas reaches your eyes.
Result: Just hacking away at the onion, I get in the frying pan without so much as a sting in my eyes. The onion looks awful, though. Doing a proper dice, I take a little too long and start tearing up. If you don't mind a mangled onion, this is the way to go.

Method #3: Put a slice of bread in your mouth, and cut the onion with most of the bread sticking out to "catch" the fumes.
Result: It seems the loaf of bread I have has gone stale. I stop the experiment and put bread on my shopping list.

Method #4: Chew gum while chopping. It keeps you breathing through your mouth, which keeps the fumes away from your eyes.
Result: This seems to work pretty well as long as you hold your head in the right position. Leaning toward the cutting board or looking right down at the onion puts your eyes right in the line of fire again.

Method #5: Cut the onions under running water. This prevents the gas from traveling up into the eyes.
Result: An onion in the sink is a hard onion to cut. I think Confucius said that. My leaky Brita filter is spraying me in the face and I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself, but I'm certainly not crying.

Method #6: Wear goggles.
Result: In an effort to maintain my dignity, I try my eyeglasses and sunglasses first. Neither do me any good. The ol' chemistry lab safety glasses make me look silly, but help a little more. I imagine swim goggles would really do the trick, but I don't have any.

Method #7: Change your onion. "Tear free" onions have been developed in the UK via special breeding and in New Zealand via "gene silencing" techniques.
Result: My nearest grocery store, Whole Foods, doesn't sell genetically modified produce or onions from England. Tonight, we eat leeks!

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


More from mental floss studios