Long before Martha Stewart printed her seasonal gardening chores on the first pages in each issue of Martha Stewart Living, The Old Farmer’s Almanac outlined the farm-related tasks for any given month in a not dissimilar tone.
“Milch cows should receive especial attention at this season. Do not let them—or, in fact, any of the cattle—stay out too much in the cold, raw wind,” advises The Old Farmer’s Almanac from March 1892. As for the rest of the month, “This is a good time to decide which crops you had better plant; those which are best adapted to your soil, of course, should be the ones.”
However bossy, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is still a beloved and trusted guide—my grandparents kept a copy in the TV room of their farmhouse long after their own milch cows were sold, and my stepfather tucks the annual volume on the dictionary stand in his. But the folksy mix of weather forecasts, planting advice, astronomical and astrological data, recipes, and various articles (the 2017 edition includes a story titled “How to Woo on the Web”) has a very particular audience.
“Our mission is to promote the next generation of young agrarians, and we do that through mixed media,” said Laura del Campo, director of The Greenhorns, a grassroots nonprofit devoted to recruiting, promoting, and supporting a new generation of young farmers. A new take on The Old Farmer’s Almanac—called, rightly, The New Farmer’s Almanac—is one of the organization’s catalyzing contributions to the conversation about where agriculture is headed in the next 20 years. The upcoming issue—which was just bumped from this month to December, giving you extra time to add it to your Black Friday or Cyber Monday gift-shopping list—is focused on the notion of the commons as it relates to agriculture.
And if The Old Farmer’s Almanac seems old-fashioned—it was founded in 1792—that’s not the half of it.
“The almanac as a form is actually much older than The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” said The New Farmer’s Almanac Vol. III lead editor, Nina Pick. There is, for example, the Babylonian Almanac, which dates back to the first millennium BCE and detailed the relative auspiciousness of each day of the year for any endeavor of ordinary life—including activities related to food, health, travel, and business. In the first century ACE, Greek writer Ptolemy connected celestial movements with future weather patterns. By the Middle Ages, people saw little difference between predicting the movements of the stars and tides and predicting the future for purposes of divination. In other words, you could read your horoscope in medieval almanacs—just as you can today.
The New Farmer’s Almanac engages with an ancient form by including these traditional elements while also pushing ahead into new territory.
Pick said the new publication is “drawing on a very old, traditional form, and while keeping the integrity of this old form, we’re also radicalizing it—bringing in ideas that are more revolutionary, more radical—to have these conversations with a new agrarian movement.”
Contributions come from farmers young and old, activists, economists, poets, ecologists, and a former Russian literature professor. One contributor, Elizabeth Henderson, has been an organic farmer since 1980 and is two weeks away from celebrating the end of her 28th season at Peacework Organic CSA—which she says is the oldest CSA in New York State north of Long Island. She has contributed to The New Farmer’s Almanac for two years, and the latest volume includes two more of her essays: one on GMOs and another on raising the minimum wage for farmworkers.
“My position is that if we want to have an agriculture that is worth sustaining we have to find a way to pay the people who work on our farms living wages—not just minimum wage—so it’s a respected profession that people are anxious to get into,” she said.
There is a strong anti-GMO theme running throughout the volume, Pick said, and support of local and alternative economies. Henderson, for her part, said she has been able to sustain her farm for so many years by building and relying on networks of social capital. The members of Peacework, for example, contributed money to the Genesee Land Trust to purchase the farm’s land.
“That’s what we need to build—cooperation and a solidarity economy,” she said. “Because the regular capitalist marketplace isn’t paying us enough.”
In addition to expert essays and practical illustrations of lunar cycles, what makes the almanac so unique as a form is how it also makes space for beauty, as well as the ineffable qualities of life captured most compellingly in art. This, too, is radical, Pick said.
“Drawing attention to presence, to the movement of seasons, to land, to seeds, to the beautiful details in nature is a radical action in a cultural moment that is completely dominated by screens and lack of presence, lack of commitment to nature, lack of intimacy with place and with earth,” she said.
Poet Douglass DeCandia was eager to contribute to the third volume because “I feel that The New Farmer’s Almanac is giving voice to the people who are coming to agriculture to help heal the land, ourselves, and our communities.”
What the almanac as a form can do—and what The New Farmer’s Almanac does—is unite two distinct human needs between the covers of one book.
“It speaks to the part of us that needs to read poetry and see beautiful artwork as we’re sitting around the fire on a winter’s evening,” Pick said, “and the part of us that needs to know, ‘OK, I wonder when there’s going to be high tide on June 20? When is the moon going to be full in December? And where can I buy my seeds?’ ”
“The almanac, out of all the literary genres, offers this beautiful bridging of body and soul and a real integration of the two,” she said. “We can’t be here on Earth as one without the other.”