Seen any really thick woolly bear caterpillars lately? How about pigs gathering sticks?

There must be some around, because according to the Farmers' Almanac, both are signs of a harsh winter. And this week, the almanac delivered its verdict for Minnesota's coming winter: frigid and snowy, with a polar blast in late January that will send temperatures plunging to minus 40 degrees.

"We believe it's your part of the country that's going to get the worst of the worst," said Peter Geiger, editor of the almanac, which has been issuing forecasts for 203 years. "We're saying it's going to be frigid temperatures for most of the Northern Plains into the Great Lakes."

Our area, he added, will be whipsawed by what the almanac called a "polar coaster" of freezing temperatures plus heavier-than-usual rain, sleet and snow.

Oh, and as if that weren't enough pain: The almanac predicts a late spring, too.

The Farmers' Almanac makes its predictions based on a secret formula developed by its founder, one that considers sunspot activity, the position of planets and the effect of the moon. It's a formula that's not always taken seriously by professional weather-watchers.

"The Farmers' Almanac is for entertainment purposes only," said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "I wouldn't use it as a planning document for my winter."

The almanac never seems to predict a normal winter, Boulay said. "They seem to come out with a lot of extremes for their outlooks." And the almanac gives itself a lot of leeway by including vast swaths of geography in its regional forecasts.

"If you're vague enough and use a large enough area, you'll get it right somewhere," Boulay added. "But it's all in fun, and people are always looking forward to seeing what winter's going to be like."

Earlier this year, scientists at the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted a warmer winter, based on El Niño activity in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

"But over the spring and summer, they realized the El Niño wasn't panning out," Boulay said. Now, NWS predictions have been upgraded to "more of a neutral situation," Boulay said — neither dramatically warmer nor colder than usual.

It's hard for anyone to deliver accurate long-range weather forecasts, Boulay said, adding that even NWS predictions should be taken with a grain of salt.

"This kind of long-range forecasting — once you go beyond a week or two weeks, it gets to be very difficult," he said. "So many things can change. There's no way you can have that kind of precision that far out."

Geiger claims that over the years, the Farmers' Almanac has been accurate in its predictions about 80% of the time. Last year, it predicted "a parade of snowstorms" for the northern tier of states along the Canadian border.

That panned out in the Twin Cities, where 39 inches of snow fell in February — the snowiest February ever. Nationwide, last winter was the wettest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although the almanac is perhaps best known for its weather forecasts, Geiger said the publication offers much more.

"It's fun, but I try not to get too hung up on the weather," he said. "It's what we do, but there are so many other things we do," such as showing readers how to make a car window de-icer using no chemicals.

Every Minnesotan has their own secret formula for dealing with winter. For Boulay, it's simple: "I always say, prepare for the worst and hope for the best."