Friday, September 18, 2009

Farmer's Almanac - A Classic Still Going Strong

In an age when everything is available online, maybe it's no surprise that the Old Farmer's Almanac — a cheery compendium of farm lore, homemaking and weather predictions — has hit the Internet.
Still, much of the material, including gestation and mating tables for all manner of farm animals, isn't typically associated with the digital age.
But it's right there at almanac.com, although you'll have to pay for the sacred heart of the 218-year-old publication: the region-specific calendar that includes the skywatch, lunar tables, sunrise and sunset hours, tide times and solar declinations. That costs a whopping $5.99, same as the print version.
"We try to be contemporary but also to remain timeless," says Janice Stillman, editor of the New Hampshire-based publication since 2000. "Our motto is, 'Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.' "
Stillman was in Denver on Monday, promoting the almanac. "We try to mix valuable information with the wacky and offbeat," she says.
Which is why the 2010 edition includes a story on "madstones," small, rocky orbs found in the stomachs of ruminants that supposedly can leach toxins from wounds.
The Old Farmer's Almanac, started in Massachusetts by Robert B. Thomas, has published continuously since 1792. Today it comes in four versions: U.S. and Canadian editions, plus editions specific to the West and South. The total print run is 3.2 million copies.
While still going strong in the era of iPods and BlackBerrys, the almanac hews to rural earnestness inside its trademark yellow cover.
Readers find a mix of folklore, history, short biographies, homilies and wry wit.
Advertisements skew toward beeswax candles, composters, wood stoves and tillers. Even an ad for the Jitterbug cellphone emphasizes simplicity: "It doesn't play music, take pictures, or surf the Internet."
Given that the almanac was founded when America was an agrarian society, what does it offer contemporary readers? Plenty, Stillman says.
"The almanac has a big urban gardening component that reflects what's going on in the economy," she says. "It's useful at a time when many people are converting part of their yards into organic gardens."
Hence a 10-page "Manure Manual." "The almanac was green before it was fashionable," Stillman says.
She is quick to concede the pure nostalgia of the almanac, whose cover, replete with woodcuts of seasonal farm activities, remains constant, save for the change of year.
"It's pretty remarkable," Stillman says. "It's an American icon. Yes, people use it, but a lot of folks feel they just need to have it around, if for no other reason than their parents and grandparents did."
Oh, one more thing: The almanac predicts a cold winter for our neck of the woods, but with below-average snowfall.

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