By John O’Connell
Intermountain Farm and Ranch
Dwight Little jokes that farmers fall into two camps when it comes to their faith in the "Old Farmer's Almanac's" long-term weather prognostications: There are those who believe and those who don't.
"Then maybe there's the blend, too, who want to believe when it's in their favor and discount it when it's not," the Newdale farmer added, upon further reflection.
By Little's logic, the almanac should have plenty of believers throughout Idaho farming country in its recently released full 2020-2021 winter weather forecast, which calls for above-normal snowfall throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Many farmers in the region, particularly those in southern Idaho, rely on ample snowpack to fill the reservoirs that provide the water they need to irrigate their crops during the dry summer months.
Above-normal precipitation is also expected in the northern portions of Utah and Colorado, the eastern sections of Washington and Oregon and the western Dakotas.
The almanac's longstanding prediction formula is a secret but is said to rely on factors including a mathematical and astronomical formula, sunspot activity, the tides and planetary alignment.
Analyses have pegged the almanac's accuracy at about 52% — more accurate, at least, than Punxsutawney Phil, the famed groundhog said to predict six more weeks of winter or an early spring, depending on whether or not he sees his shadow on Feb. 2.
Little puts much greater stock in the long-term forecasts made by meteorologists, which he's found have become far more accurate and sophisticated in recent years.
"You're kind of working science against folklore and guesses," Little said.
Nonetheless, Little said, the almanac's predictions come up in discussions among farmers at coffee shops, and he won't discount the ability of people who are in tune with the environment to analyze signs in nature, such as thickness of animal coats and timing of when aspen leaves change.
The almanac made some bold predictions nationwide for the coming winter, including the possibility of a blizzard striking the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states during the second week of February. Below-normal temperatures are predicted from the Great Lakes westward through the Northern and Central Plains and Rockies.
"This winter will be filled with so many ups and downs on the thermometer, it may remind you of a 'polar' coaster," the almanac's editor, Peter Geiger Philom, said in a press release. "Our extended forecast is calling for another freezing, frigid and frosty winter for two-thirds of the country."
The almanac anticipates the Southwest will be mild and dry this winter.
The National Weather Service in Pocatello has a slightly less optimistic winter forecast for farmers hoping for an ample snowpack.
The agency's three-month rolling forecast for December, January and February predicts a normal winter in Southeast Idaho, and a 33% chance of above-normal precipitation in Northern Idaho and the northern tip of Eastern Idaho.
National Weather Service meteorologist Travis Wyatt said projecting three or more months out is far from a perfect science, but forecasters generally come close by analyzing patterns.
The major pattern they follow is El Nino and La Nina — which references temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in east-central Equatorial Pacific.
Wyatt said the development of La Nina is predicted to gradually increase Southeast Idaho's chances of moisture from late winter through early spring, with the January, February and March forecast for the region also improving to a 33% chance of above-normal precipitation.
Meteorologist Kurt Buffalo, who is the National Weather Service's science and operations officer, said his agency's Climate Prediction Center will release its official winter forecast in mid-October.
There's a 60% chance of a La Nina developing, which tends to correlate with higher moisture and cooler temperatures in Southeast Idaho, Buffalo said.
"If we start to see a stronger likelihood that La Nina is developing, the chances of stronger precipitation and cooler temperatures would be nudged upwards," Buffalo said.
Farmers such as Little keep constant tabs on both long-term and short-term weather forecasts. Given the tight margins on which they operate, a change in the weather can dramatically affect their bottom lines.
Little noted that farmers learned less than 48 hours in advance last fall that a damaging frost was headed their way, and most of them worked day and night to save the bulk of their potato crops.
"I certainly track (the weather) both day and night," Little said. "It's like watching the crop markets. You're very in tuned with what's happening throughout the day and the week and the month. It's no different than marketing a crop — you're anticipating changes that are coming down the pike."