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Groundhogs to onion skins

By Lorne McClinton

For Top Crop Manager

One farmer’s experience

Let farmers know exactly what the weather is going to be like from May until October and most problems in agriculture would disappear. Much of the risk would be gone. Throughout history farmers have been trying to find some way to predict what the upcoming season will bring. Their attempts to predict the weather have been passed down in folklore through the centuries.

People traditionally looked to animals for clues to the weather. Ground Hog Day is perhaps the most famous example of this for a long-term weather forecast. If the Ground Hog comes out of his burrow on February 2nd and sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. This legend must have had its roots in more southern climates because most prairie folk would count themselves lucky if winter would be over only six weeks after.

The woolly bear caterpillar is also commonly sited as a good indicator for winter weather. The woolly bear caterpillar has three distinct stripes, two black stripes with a brown stripe in the middle. According to tradition the wider the brown stripe, the milder the winter.

Onion skins were another popular way for determining how severe of a winter we can expect. Like many of the old folk forecasting methods, it has been passed down through the ages in the form of a rhyme.

Onion skins very thin,

Mild Winter coming in;

Onion skins thick and tough,

Coming Winter cold and rough.

The problem with using either the woolly bear caterpillar or the onion skin method of forecasting the upcoming winter is that I have no idea whatsoever what the normal thickness should be. Even if I diligently took my calipers to every onion in the cupboard or every woolly bear I came across I would still have no idea what the information meant. Is 2mm good or bad?

The Old Farmers Almanac has long been noted for its weather forecasts. They are said to be based on a secret formula devised by its founder in 1792 and enhanced with the most modern scientific calculations based on solar activity and current meteorological data. It also warns readers not to expect total accuracy. Still when I compared it’s forecast for the 2000 growing season with conditions on my farm it they did come out reasonably well.

I would have to say its temperature forecasts were largely accurate. Perhaps it is hard to go wrong by predicting seasonable weather. As for precipitation, I received 392 mm of rain from April 1st to Oct. 31st. The almanac predicted I would receive 325mm over the same period. It was out by a bit, but it did far better than Environment Canada did with its forecast last spring that we would experience a hot, dry summer in 2000. Table 1 shows how the almanac’s precipitation forecast and my recorded rainfall compared.

Month Almanac My farm
April 80mm 29mm
May 40mm 89mm
June 75mm 93mm
July 45mm 93.5mm
August 5mm 36mm
September 60mm 22mm
October 20mm 29.5mm

It was off on the rainfall but it did get the May snowfall right.

The almanac missed the July 6th hailstorm and was off by over 50% in total rainfall for July. To be fair though it did predict thunderstorms for the eastern prairies.

Too bad it could not have predicted the warm, misty conditions around September 1st that sprouted my durum wheat.

As for 2001, the Almanac is not starting off on a good foot. It was predicting a warm November with 20mm of precipitation. By mid month we had three blizzards between Halloween and Remembrance Day and almost all of Southeast Saskatchewan had been buried in snowdrifts. I had more snow piled up in my yard than I did all the previous winter. I was wondering how much snow I would have by Christmas. They can send the warm weather they were predicting any time now.

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