The Dane County Farmers' Market stands as a connection between Madison and the farms that surround it.
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It was just after midnight in 1972, and Jim Barnard was steering a refrigerated box truck down Wisconsin’s craggy peninsula. Fruit from his Door County farm packed the truck: Cinderella plums, Seckel pears, totes brimming with Cortland and Macintosh apples. The drive to Madison was five hours, one way. But Barnard was eager to take part in what was then a fledgling experiment: a Saturday farmers’ market on the city’s Capitol Square. Just ten other vendors showed up at the first Dane County Farmers’ Market that morning in late September. Forty years later, it’s the largest producer-only market in the country, with three hundred members, up to 170 sellers weekly, a five-year vendor waiting list, and as many as twenty thousand daily visitors. The market is a hub of social activity, as much a tourist destination as an outdoor grocery store. It’s an emblem of Wisconsin’s agricultural riches, attracting chefs and gardeners, vegans and carnivores, and people who treasure building community through food. And it’s a particular point of pride in Madison, where buying and eating local long predates the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table movement.
“There’s this elevation of the farmer as rock star at the market,” says Kiera Mulvey, executive director of the non-profit FairShare CSA (community-supported agriculture) Coalition. “There’s a real appreciation for the contributions that farmers make to the Madison community.”
That much was evident at the first farmers’ market, where Barnard and his fellow vendors quickly were overwhelmed with customers. The following Saturday, eighty-five sellers came to the market; two years later, that number had more than tripled and the market drew two hundred thousand annual visitors. A Wednesday morning market opened in 1975 to help meet demand.
The market’s popularity outpaced its organization. Vendors weren’t assigned stalls, so many slept in their trucks on Friday night, waking at dawn to stake out a spot on the Square. “There was a rule—you had to drive once around the Capitol before you could park,” recalls Rich Salzman, whose parents were among the market’s first vendors. “So the cars would hot-rod around the Square at five in the morning.”
Nowadays, things are more civilized. A seniority system, established in 1990, guarantees longtime vendors first pick of location, and in the late nineties, when the number of sellers swelled to four hundred, market managers capped membership and instituted a waiting list. Vendors must be properly licensed and abide by the market’s strict rules: All products, from emu eggs to kohlrabi to spicy cheese bread, must be grown or made in Wisconsin, and at least one producer must be behind every table. Reselling is forbidden.
The idea, market manager Larry Johnson says, is not only to promote Wisconsin products but also to encourage “hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails” production. The payoff is obvious: Consumers get to meet the person who grows their food, while vendors can forge relationships with shoppers. Customer feedback is nice for the ego, too. Willi Lehner, who owns Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, says he loves giving people cheese samples and “watching their eyes roll back in their heads.”
And then there are more tangible rewards. Johnson says consumers spend about $10 million annually at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and another $6 million at nearby shops and cafes.
“A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, having a farmers’ market is going to take away my business,’” says Alfonso Morales, a UW–Madison professor of urban and regional planning. “But it’s a complementary activity, not competition.”
The farmers’ market has shaped Madison’s food-centric culture, too. White-tablecloth restaurants cook with market ingredients, but so do the city’s bakeries, pizzerias, pubs and street carts. And our palettes are getting more sophisticated, thanks to the market’s increasingly diverse vendor population. Hmong and Hmong American farmers, who now make up fifteen percent of sellers, have introduced marketgoers to Southeast Asian staples like bitter melon, bottle gourds, shell pea tips and long beans.
The market has also helped make fresh, locally grown food more accessible to people with limited income. In 2008, vendors began accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as food stamps), when less than twenty percent of the nation’s farmers’ markets did so. Shoppers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market redeemed $3,000 worth of SNAP vouchers that year; in 2011, redemptions had soared to $49,000.
But many market traditions remain unchanged. Jim Barnard and his wife, Crystal, now both in their late sixties, still spend forty hours each week shuttling tart cherries and moongold apricots to Madison for the Wednesday and Saturday markets. “We’re invested in the market, since we helped start it,” Crystal says. And, she adds, customers expect them. “We’re historic fixtures. If our truck breaks down and we can’t get there, we’ll hear about it.”
1. Bandaged Cheddar
Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds
To go out on a limb: Willi Lehner’s Bandaged Cheddar might be the best cheese in Wisconsin. Bound in cloth and aged on cedar planks in an underground cave, the English-style Cheddar inspires a glut of adjectives: tangy, smoky, nutty, sweet. Lehner himself struggles to characterize the taste: “It’s like trying to describe the surface of the moon.”
Find it at the market: North Carroll Street, across from the Wisconsin Historical Museum
2. "Frost- Sweetened" Spinach
Snug Haven Farm, Belleville
Bill Warner sometimes tells people he sprays his spinach with sugar water—a joke, but hardly far-fetched, considering how sweet it is. He and his wife, Judy Hageman, have grown the crop since 1994; before that, Warner admits he “could never put the words ‘good’ and ‘spinach’ together.” During its cool-weather growing season (roughly December to May), restaurants in Madison and Chicago buy it by the case.
Find it at the market: North Carroll Street, across from Grace Episcopal Church
Greg and Carol Gitto, Watertown
The Gittos’ delicious, paper-thin tortillas have gained a cult following since they debuted at the farmers’ market last year. The secret ingredient is sunflower oil (they source theirs from Driftless Organics), and the couple eat them with everything from PBJ to ground beef. Says Carol, “We rarely buy brat buns anymore.”
Find them at the market: on West Mifflin Street, between Wisconsin Avenue and State Street
Driftless Organics, Soldiers Grove
Second-generation farmers Josh and Noah Engel began selling potatoes in grade school, when most kids were hawking lemonade. Nearly twenty years later, the brothers and business partner Mike Lind grow a dozen varieties, from Purple Vikings to Red Marias to Adirondack Blues. Eat them fancy (Harvest uses them in truffle pierogi) or plain (mashed, roasted, baked or fried).
Find them at the market: on South Pinckney Street, across from Graze
5. Lion's Mane Mushrooms
Herb 'n Oyster Mushroom Farm, McFarland
“Brains, cauliflower, coral—we get that a hundred times a day,” says Joe Landis, referring to the knobby, shaggy lion’s mane mushrooms he and his wife, Kari Wendt, sell at the market. Squint hard—maybe you see…sea anemone?—then slice a few and sauté them in butter with salt. The texture is terrific.
Find them at the market: Carroll Street or Mifflin Street; look for the polka-dot windsock