Yesterday was Groundhog Day. According to our local woodchuck meteorologists, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil and West Virginia’s French Creek Freddie, we can expect an early start to spring this year. That forecast certainly seems to be bearing fruit as a warm air mass surges into our area on the back of fierce winds blowing out of the south and southwest. Our high today is forecasted to approach 70-degrees for the first time this year, and the intense sunlight streaming through our windows gives me confidence that may actually happen. Our high yesterday topped out at 58 degrees and our morning low held at 54 degrees when I let Calli outdoors at 5:30 AM. Of course, most people casually dismiss the weather legend of Groundhog Day, but that does not mean that all the old weather folklore and sayings you hear old-timers recount can be similarly rejected. You might be surprised to learn that most of it has a basis in fact.
By now, most of our website patrons have discovered the Calendar/Almanac page under the “Our Community” header of our website. It’s been there, for good reason, since the day I first activated the Peeper Pond Farm website in early September 2016. On it, you’ll find links to an on-line sunrise/sunset calendar that also calculates lunar cycles and rising/setting times, a doppler radar loop for our region, historical climatological data and averages for Upper Tract, plant hardiness zones for our region, and a link to the original Old Farmer’s Almanac that has been published annually in Dublin, NH for 208 years (and counting). The Old Farmer’s Almanac was a valuable (in fact, indispensable) information resource for our dairy farm when I was child. We bought it every year, and it was so well used that you could find smudges and residue from the dirty fingers that perused it on almost every page. The Almanac was sold with a hole drilled through it in the upper left hand corner, which was used by many farmers (including my father) to hang it from a length of baler twine (or string) tacked to ceiling of our milk room, where it would be handy for reference at a moment’s notice.
When I began equipping our farm operation about five years ago, I bought a copy of it. I was deeply disappointed with my purchase. Much of the essential data that we often used had been compressed or eliminated. What information that remained was primarily tailored to household gardening needs and, of course, the frequency of commercial advertisements increased greatly to fill in the gaps. When I was young, the Almanac had very detailed astronomical schedules for the sun and moon, including tables to adjust rising and setting times for communities across the country. It also contained high and low tide schedules for many port cities. This data was important to farmers, who needed to know when, during each month, the full moon would occur and when it would rise and set. Spring crop planting and fall harvesting work was carefully timed to days when the moon would be three-quarters full (whether waxing or waning) because it was bright enough to extend the number of working daylight hours you would have to plant or harvest during the times of the year when the sun would set early or rise late. Even livestock breeding and birthing cycles are influenced by seasonal climate and sunlight patterns.
Tidal information was important in early America because so many farm products were transported by canals and rivers to major coastal port cities. Knowing when the tide would be high (and how high it would be) made it easier to transport heavy loads of farm products downstream (especially during prolonged dry periods) to a port city because the tides would affect water levels in the canals and rivers many miles upstream.
Long-term historical weather patterns and averages were obviously beneficial for farmers to know so that planting and harvesting schedules could be determined to ensure the best production. Many farmers were astutely aware of the local climate patterns in their area and kept their own records to understand the peculiarities of their own local micro-climate. That is especially important for us at Peeper Pond Farm, because temperature and precipitation patterns vary dramatically by elevation and the solar orientation of each valley throughout the Potomac Highlands. This is why I have kept very careful records of daily temperature, precipitation, and snowfall patterns at our farm.
A farmer’s interest and knowledge of local weather patterns also extended to changing cloud and sky patterns. Farmer’s learned how to read immediate and daily weather conditions by recognizing certain patterns that precede short-term atmospheric conditions. For example, the age-old saying, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight, but red sky at morn, sailors be warned,” is a valid weather forecasting adage because the approach or departure of a large high- or low-pressure system creates atmospheric conditions that favor colorful sunrises or sunsets. Farmers also correctly observed that fair weather will occur when birds fly high in the sky or smoke rises immediately from a chimney, while the advent of a storm can be predicted when birds fly low and smoke curls down from a chimney. They also noted that seeing a halo of light around the moon often occurred in the hours before a long, steady rainfall. All of these common old weather forecasting sayings (and many others) are useful because farmers had an incentive to “read” weather patterns from careful atmospheric and sky observations. My adoptive father taught me to “read” weather conditions using these old sayings, but I didn’t understand why they were so useful until I began to read the works of Eric Sloane, who researched and explained them.
Today we have fewer farmers, and farm goods are now transported by trains and trucks rather than by barge or boat. We also have professional meteorologists to give us daily weather forecasts based on satellite imagery and complex computer models—even though the accuracy and reliability of our short-term (three-day) weather forecasts hasn’t improved as much over the past 50 years as the complexity and data-gathering power of our technological advances would lead us to expect. Consequently, I’m not surprised to see the disappointing changes that have been made in the content of the Old Farmer’s Almanac we once used so often.
Here at Peeper Pond Farm, we buy an annual “Brownie Calendar” that hangs from a nail in our back hall, near the door closest to our goat barn. This calendar features generalized weather forecasts (based on some interpolation of historic weather data and patterns), sun and moon phase timetables, and guides for fishing, planting, and other farming activities. I glance at it occasionally as I put on my boots and barn shoes to tend the goats or when I refill our pellet stove that stands next to the barnyard door. It reminds me of the time-honored old ways that we once understood and used to predict daily weather patterns with nearly as much accuracy as today’s meteorologists. It is that old-time folk wisdom and intimate understanding of his surroundings that made farmers so wise relative to the average person of today, who is so obsessively focused on the personal pursuits of his/her daily life that there is no time really appreciate and understand the subtle beauty and patterns of the natural world that surrounds us. Those are the experiences I treasure most from my life here at Peeper Pond Farm. I only hope you can find some time in your busy life to appreciate them as I do.