Brothers Gene, left, and Peter Geiger stand near the solar panels at Geiger in Lewiston. The Geigers publish the Farmers’ Almanac. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)
LEWISTON — Pete Geiger, the editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, pauses at the entryway of the 50,000-square-foot fulfillment center at Geiger, the family-owned promotional products company that produces the annual bible of weather predictions, horoscopes, household tips and the like. The 2019 Farmers’ Almanac must be in there, boxed up in cardboard, waiting for its Aug. 27 release nationwide.
“They are hiding,” Geiger confirms, his tone indicating, move along, nothing to see here, in the kindest possible way.
Until its release, the Almanac, or rather, its weather predictions for the coming year, must remain under wraps. On the 27th, which happens to be Geiger’s 45th anniversary with the company that his father, Ray, bought in 1934, he and his managing editor, Sandi Duncan, will start talking about what’s in the 200-page paperback. He’ll show up on national media (he’s a frequent visitor to the “Today” show), in all likelihood explaining that Caleb Weatherbee is a pseudonym for the seventh weather forecaster in the almanac’s history and that no, he won’t relate exactly how the almanac produces weather forecasts 18 months into the future.
“I have to talk about the weather,” Geiger said. “The thing I really want to talk about is sustainability.”
“Our brand is to be good to the environment,” he said. “And to be sustainable.”
There are many facets to being sustainable. How does any printed publication, especially one that used to be given away free by banks, survive in the 21st century economy? (Short answer, by evolving in business practices, if not tone.) At its peak, as recently as 1982, 6.5 million copies of the almanac were in circulation every year, all promotional copies purchased and given away by businesses. Now there are 1.7 million copies, some of which are still given away by companies (in Maine, Renys reliably does so, but not until later in the fall). But since 1995, the almanac has also been offered for retail sale. The current price is $6.99.
Publishers everywhere are struggling. But in at least one respect, the Farmers’ Almanac is lucky. The topics it covers, from raising backyard chickens to growing tomatoes on your deck, are wildly popular right now. So are the do-it-yourself solutions that the almanac specializes in, like using baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice in the place of chemical cleaners. A recent post on the Farmers’ Almanac Facebook page about which vegetables should be cooked in boiling water versus which should be boiled with the water got 14 million hits on Facebook.
Beyond that, Geiger, the company that Peter Geiger and his brother, Gene, own, has taken steps to become more sustainable in a practical, physical sense in recent years as its traditional business model has shifted. At one time there were hundreds of almanacs circulating from hundreds of publishers, tucked into every corner of the country. Now the Farmers’ Almanac is one of just a handful of holdouts. (Its closest rival, Old Farmers’ Almanac, comes out of Dublin, New Hampshire, and is a little bit older, dating to 1792).
Farmers’ Almanac was founded in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1818 by a school teacher named David Young. Young established the formula for predicting the weather, using sunspot activity, tidal action of the moon and the position of the planets, among other things, and those methods are still used today (with some other means as well, which no one will share). Young couldn’t have predicted climate change, or the way publishing has evolved in a post-Craigslist era.
SUN AFTER THE STORM
By October, Peter Geiger and Sandi Duncan will be hard at work on the 2020 Almanac, which must be at the printer in Wisconsin by next June for production. As of June 2013, Geiger ceased to manufacture products, or print any editions of the almanac itself, in Lewiston. It was a brutally hard decision for the brothers, who had moved to Maine as small children and grew up in and around the company’s headquarters on Mount Hope Ave.
“When you are making products for 135 years and then you have to (lay) off people who worked for you for up to 40 years, that is about as miserable a situation as you can have,” said Gene Geiger, who serves as the company’s chief executive officer.
But the staff had been well aware of the decline in incoming business, the Geigers said. “People knew that in the last three or four years there weren’t the new orders,” Peter Geiger said. “There wasn’t the uptick.”
Advertising fell off as well.
“The biggest challenge is, how do you make money with print ads or online?” he said. “That is the ever-evolving issue that we all have.”
As the printing and manufacturing side of the business disappeared, Geiger found ways to be a smarter business, undergoing a radical physical restructuring, geared toward sustainability. They installed a 696-panel, 233 kilowatt solar farm (visible from I-95), which is projected to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 8 million pounds over its lifetime.
Finished last September, that solar farm meets 100 percent of the company’s electricity needs, a need which diminished by 50 percent after a complete conversion to LED lighting. (That tower that lights up at dusk and which varies in color depending on the day, or how the brothers’ alma maters have done in say, basketball championships, is all LED.) A digital screen hanging in a hallway shows exactly how much carbon is being offset on any given day and hour.
Since Ray Geiger moved the company to Maine in 1954, building on former farmland adjacent to the site of a planned highway (I-95) the building had expanded several times, starting in 1961. The most recent had been in 1989, when business was still going strong. But the 20th-century remodel, which the Geiger brothers anticipate will net them a LEED Gold certification soon, represented a considerable footprint reduction. There are now 1.5 acres of increased green space around the building, including a full acre less of paved parking lot. “It greatly reduced the amount of impervious surfaces,” Gene Geiger said.
Only 10 percent of the waste materials from the remodel and reduction went into the landfill, the Geigers said. They sent welding desks and wire to Lewiston High School for use in shop classes. The farmers from nearby New Beginnings showed up with trucks to take away furnishings and other cast offs. “I felt like Santa Claus,” Peter Geiger said.
As the company began using the building differently, post-manufacturing it found ways to hold itself accountable for areas of waste or excess. Geiger does hold some manufactured promotional materials, in that 50,000 square foot fulfillment center. It has contractual arrangements with 300 companies, Peter Geiger said, and if one of those companies calls asking for an emergency delivery of say, golf balls with logos on them, Geiger sends them off by United Parcel Service, with a self-imposed environmental tax of sorts.
“We pay to offset the carbon that is required to ship every box to every place,” Gene Geiger said. “Not just from here but from every supplier we work with. We are 100 percent carbon neutral. They calculate how much Co2 is generated to deliver every box and the mitigate that by planting trees somewhere.”
Geiger has a similar arrangement for its photocopiers.
“For every 8,300 pieces of paper we use in the photo copiers, a tree is planted in Brazil,” Gene Geiger said.
The photocopier company they work with gave him a choice, he said, of where the trees would be planted. “I chose Brazil because you can’t beat a Brazilian rain forest.”
They dumped their plastic coffee stirrers and replaced them with wooden ones. And as for office recycling, they’re still refining that system, but it’s very top-down and not exactly typical. “We collected all of the plastic, aluminum, glass, everything that we can recycle,” Peter Geiger said.
He sorts through the office recycling, and takes it home to put curbside at his house. “I put out like 15 containers.”
“The neighbors are ticked off,” Gene Geiger joked.
“The neighbors are curious,” Peter corrected him.
“Forty-nine feet of stuff,” Gene said.
The taking-recycling-home-with-him solution is just temporary, Peter Geiger says, until they can work out a long-term solution. But in the meantime, his fervor to recycle has caught on.
“I buy Coffeemate in a plastic thing,” Gene Geiger said. “And I was ready to throw it in the trash and I said, ‘Oh geez, Peter is going to be pissed off at me. So I rinsed it out and threw it into the recycling container.”
ONLINE AND SOCIALLY NETWORKED
The Farmers’ Almanac went online in 1997. It has more than 1.1 million followers on Facebook, Susan Higgins is the web content editor and she’s about to go through her fifth year of launching a new almanac. It’s hard to know what will be a hit on social media. For instance, it never occurred to her that graphic about boiling vegetables would be fascinating to 14 million people.
The shift in Facebook algorithms that have made life challenging for newspapers have been somewhat problematic for the almanac as well. “You just need a core group of sharers,” Higgins said.
The almanac remains resolutely folksy. On a joke page in the 2018 book calls for bad spellers of the world to “untie!” and suggests that hemorrhoids should be called “asteroids.” The Farmers’ Almanac hasn’t survived this long on sophistication. Hot-button issues tend to be centered on everyday life. What animals are you scared of? What can a lemon do to ease your cough? Simple, helpful tips.
The almanac is also resolutely non-political. During World War II, Ray Geiger, father to Gene and Peter, was stationed in the South Pacific. He sent dispatches for the almanac to his sister to be printed, but none of them said a word about the war.
“In 1828 we said that Congress spoke too much and spent too much, and we’ve never made a comment since,” Peter Geiger said.
It’s meant to be both reflective of American trends and instructional, even innovative, about how to live now, now being whatever year the almanac comes out. In the 1950s, the almanac advised readers to save water by putting a brick in the toilet tank.
It does like to advocate for quirky issues. One of Peter Geiger’s earliest acts at the almanac was to travel with his father to Washington, D.C., in 1974 to lobby on behalf of the postmark, from which the U.S. Postal Service had begun eliminating place names. Geiger has also advocated on behalf of changing the national anthem and a patient’s bill of rights to decrease waits in doctor’s offices.
Then there’s the topic of climate change, which obviously, the recycling, solar-power-using, carbon-footprint-calculating Geigers agree is real. It has become a political issue, with many Republican politicians with national platforms, including the president, denying climate change’s existence or casting doubt on whether humans are causing it. Not the Farmers’ Almanac. Included in its 200th anniversary edition was a history of building snowmen that concluded with a matter-of-a-fact acknowledgment that “Climate control is the biggest threat to this pastime.”
“I believe in climate change, but I don’t blame everything on climate change,” Peter Geiger said.
Not even the weather disasters in recent years, some of which Farmers’ Almanac claims to have accurately predicted (including hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Rita). “If you look back and are realistic about it, there have been huge disasters going back hundreds of years,” Peter Geiger said. His family has been keeping tabs for them for more than 80.
Copies of old almanacs at Geiger. The almanac is resolutely non-political: “In 1828 we said that Congress spoke too much and spent too much, and we’ve never made a comment since,” Peter Geiger says. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)