Some people believe the onion can be a crystal ball into the future of weather.
Every New Year's Eve, those people cut up an onion into 12 bowl-like cups and add a teaspoon of salt to each. Each bowl represents a month of the upcoming year. In the morning, some of the onions are filled with water. The bowls that are wet indicate which months will be wet next year.
Elsie Lacher of Zeeland, N.D., who has been keeping an onion calendar since the late 1970s, believes they are only 75 to 80 percent accurate.
Still, there are years when the onion is so accurate, it makes you want to cry.
When Lacher looked at her onion calendar for 1988, the salt was totally dry for the summer months, she said.
“And it was a terrible drought that year,” she said.
“And in 1993, I came downstairs and my onion calendar was on the table. The water, the juice from the onion, was running all over the cutting board, down the side of the board and under the table,” Lacher said.
That year, the area had a very wet summer. “The first two weeks in July, we had over 10 inches.”
Lacher is one of about five people in the Ashley area who keep onion calendars.
Even though the accuracy isn't always reliable, people are curious about an onion calendar's predictions.
“Nobody really believes in them, but New Year's Day, my phone rings from morning til night,” said Lacher, who works at the Dakota Family Restaurant in Ashley.
Delbert and Donna Eszlinger, who live seven miles northeast of Ashley, also get a lot of phone calls on New Year's Day.
Using onions is just one nature-based method of predicting the weather that farmers like to talk about.
Lots of people subscribe to the 3-30-90 method, which holds that if you have fog, generally the moisture will come down three days, 30 days or 90 days later. Some folks cite a creature called the “wooly worm.”
Others use a pig's spleen to do their forecasting.
Others place stock in how close to the edge of the water the muskrats make their huts, Lacher said.
Most of the people who make onion calendars are carrying on a tradition. Ray Baumann, for instance, was taught the art by his wife, Hildegarde, who is now in a nursing home. She learned the skill from her father, Jacob Maier, who was born in Russia.
Mavis Widmer's father, who grew up around Lehr, N.D., put a lot of faith in onion calendars.
“The old people believed a lot in that — that and the pig spleen,” said Widmer, whose late husband also used to do an onion calendar.
The New Year's Eve ritual, Lacher said, is “an old, old tradition.”
Delbert Eszlinger learned about onion calendars from a neighbor lady, Lydia Schumacher, who has long since passed on.
“When I was a kid, we'd always have to go over there New Year morning and check out that onion calendar,” he said.
Eszlinger believes that onion calendars are about 95 percent accurate.
“Last year was right on the money,” he said. “This year the only month that hasn't been right is November so far, but we can still get moisture.”
Baumann, who turns 89 on Dec. 21, said an onion calendar is something to do on New Year's Eve “instead of going out partying.”
If you're doing an onion calendar, Baumann stresses that the onions must be cut vertically. That method produces onion bowls that don't have a hole in the bottom. The salt placed in the onions, he noted, draws out the water. He creates two rows, with six onions in each. After the onions are cut, they should be set out in a cool room for at least an hour. Most people just wait until morning to check them.
You can find the directions on Page 252 of the 2012 Old Farmer's Almanac.
Opinions differ slightly as to what time the calendar should be prepared on New Year's Eve. The almanac story says you should do your cutting at a quarter to midnight.
Preparing an onion calendar comes with a price.
“It really stinks up the house,” Lacher said. “Some onions are stronger than others.”
One year, Lacher prepared two calendars, using an onion from the store and one from her garden. “I just wanted to see if there was a difference,” she said. The results were about the same. But the smell was very strong.
When she lived at home, Hildegarde Baumann tried to interest her husband in onion forecasting. But he was dubious, saying you can't predict weather with an onion.
He's still not sold on the idea. But partly to carry on his wife's family tradition, he prepared an onion calendar on New Year's Eve.
“Lord willing,” he wants to do it for five years to see how it goes.
He and Hildegarde, who have three children, have been married 65 years.
Not only does he know his onions, but Baumann gives a lot of credence to fog in predicting weather.
“I expect an open winter,” he says. “We’ll have our snow, but not like last year.”
There is a danger in preparing a calendar made of food.
When Eszlinger was a kid, his family went to the neighbor lady's home on New Year's Day to see what the new onion calendar said.
“And they had an older son that was living with them at the time. He was about 30 years old,” Eszlinger said. “He drank a little too much that night. He came home and he needed some lunch. So he ate the onion calendar.
“She said, ‘There will be no weather this year.’ ”
Reprinted with permission of the Aberdeen American News.