The Dane County Farmers' Market stands as a connection between Madison and the farms that surround it.
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
You love their products. Now learn the stories behind these popular market sellers.
Fantôme Farm, Ridgeway
Anne Topham grew up eating Velveeta, so when she first tasted French-style goat cheese, it was a revelation. Topham and her partner, Judy Borree, started one of the nation’s first goat cheese dairies in 1984 and soon were at the farmers’ market, cajoling shoppers to sample their chevre. “We thought if we could get them to taste it, we could get them to buy it,” Topham says. Nearly thirty years and multiple awards later, she attributes their success to the farmers’ market: “If we had to sell in a store, it never would have worked.”
Find them at the market: South Carroll Street, across from Fromagination
Yang's Fresh Produce, Brooklyn
During the Vietnam War in her native Laos, Mee Xiong would hop on helicopters to sell soda to U.S. soldiers. “She’s always been an entrepreneur,” says her son Yeng Yang, who moved to Wisconsin in 1986 with his parents and siblings. The Hmong family, who began selling at the farmers’ market in 1993, attends farming conferences, recently launched a CSA and soon will sell certified organic produce. “We want to take a family farm o a new level,” Yang says. “We want this to be my mom’s legacy.”
Find them at the market: West Mifflin Street, across from Flavor of India
The Flower Farmers:
Lost Lake Acres Greenhouse, Fall River
Richard and Ethel Salzman and their son, Rich, own a veritable greenhouse empire—eleven structures that shelter forty thousand square feet of geraniums, begonias, million bells, you name it. The Salzmans, who sold produce at the first farmers’ market, grow asparagus, melons and tomatoes, too, but they’re best known for Ethel’s gorgeous hanging flower baskets, which draw people from across Wisconsin to the Salzmans’ Dodge County farm. “When people drive up in a U-Haul,” Rich says, “you know they’re good customers.”
Find them at the market: Corner of South Pinckney and King streets, across from U.S. Bank
The Heir Apparent:
The Summer Kitchen, Highland
“Jelly Jim” Schroeder, one of the market’s original vendors, began grooming his successor more than thirty years ago. The jammaker paid eight-year-old Dan Aultman a silver dollar every week to help with farm chores, promising the boy, “If you keep working hard, this place will be yours.” Schroeder died last year, and now Aultman carries the mantle, selling fifty-plus varieties of jams, jellies and relishes. The money Aultman made when he bought the business went to a college agricultural scholarship—reason enough to buy a jar of apple butter, of which Schroeder was so proud.
Find them at the market: West Main Street, across from Brocach
The Chef Favorite:
Garden To Be, Mount Horeb
If you’ve dined out in Madison, likely you’ve tasted something grown by Scott Williams and April Yancer. Their nine-acre farm, Garden to Be, supplies herbs, edible flowers and vegetables to thirty-three local restaurants, from L’Etoile to Mermaid Café to Eno Vino. The couple also design and tend restaurant gardens, and soon will offer services to anyone who needs help planning a backyard garden, growing organic, or improving a feeble crop.
Find them at the market: East Main Street, across from Walgreens
Farm to Feast
City chefs committed to the farm-to-table movement share menu highlights that make the most of local ingredients.
Harvest sources ingredients from more than seventy local farms and producers. Their roasted pork loin with choke berry compote, candied chestnuts and Door County cherry gastrique features pork from Lange Family Farm, choke berries from Carandale Farm, cherries from Jim and Crystal Barnard’s farm in Door County and shallots from Black Earth Organics.
Chef Tory Miller taps more than ninety local producers for ingredients. His dry-aged steak with gruyère latkes features beef from Fountain Prairie Farm, potatoes from Butter Mountain, gruyère from Forgotten Valley, confit made with Black Earth Valley shallots, ragoût with Herb ‘n Oyster mushrooms, Snug Haven spinach and blue cheese-bone marrow compound butter made from Emmi Roth cheese, Fountain Prairie bone marrow and Sassy Cow Creamery butter.
The Madison Club:
The Club’s roasted bison entrée features bison from Cherokee Farm, toasted wheat berries from Washington Island, risotto made with mushrooms from Herb ‘n Oyster, a remoulade with Harmony Valley celery root, Jordandal Farm bacon and Cherokee sunflower oil, and pickled crosnes and sautéed rutabaga from Harmony Valley
The restaurant’s croque monsieur with bayonne ham and gruyère is made with bread from Madison Sourdough, ham from Jones Farm, cheese from Roth Käse and eggs from New Century Farms.
Underground Food Collective:
At a dinner they co-hosted in February, the Collective served caramelized carrot soup with smoked pig’s head, corn fritters and a cabbage chive slaw made with pork and red corn from Henry Morren, carrots, smoked peppers and pumpkin seed oil from Driftless Organics, cabbage from Jones Valley Farm and baby chives from Garden to Be.
Farmers Market Breakfast Salad
8 slices bacon
2 tbsp oil
10 stalks asparagus
8 mushrooms, sliced
8 cups fresh mixed greens
About 4 oz grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan (try Sartori’s Espresso BellaVitano for a real breakfast treat)
2 tbsp bacon drippings
1 large shallot, thinly chopped
2 tbsp oil (try Driftless Organics sunflower oil)
2 tbsp champagne vinegar
1 tsp mustard
1 tsp sugar
Place bacon on cookie sheet and put in oven preheated to 400 degrees. Cook bacon until crispy, about 10–14 minutes. Remove and drain on towel. Reserve about 2 tbsp bacon drippings. Chop bacon into small pieces and set aside.
To make dressing, heat reserved bacon drippings in small skillet. Add shallot and cook briefly until soft about 1–2 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and place in bowl, along with the oil from the skillet. Add sunflower oil, vinegar, mustard, sugar and salt and stir. Set aside.
Meanwhile sauté asparagus and mushroom slices with a pinch of salt over medium heat until just softened.
Evenly divide greens between plates and top with sauteed veggies and bacon bits.
Heat a skillet with oil/more drippings to fry the eggs,
ideally leaving yolks a bit runny. Top each salad with an egg, some grated parmesan and dressing.
Enjoy with bread fresh from the market!
Thinking Inside the Box
Tips for Choosing a CSA
If you don’t have time to shop the farmers’ market, consider buying a CSA (community supported agriculture) share. Fifty Madison-area farms, many of them Dane County Farmers’ Market vendors, participate in the subscription program, where customers pre-pay for boxes of seasonal produce. Kiera Mulvey, executive director of the non-profit FairShare CSA Coalition, shares tips for getting the most out of CSA and selecting one that’s right for you.
Be flexible: Part of the beauty of CSA is the element of surprise—you never know how much cauliflower (or cabbage or celeriac) lurks in your box. But to some people, “that’s horrifying,” Mulvey says. “If you don’t like to cook, or you’re not interested in experimenting, you’re probably going to be overwhelmed.”
Start small: Many farms offer half shares, which are more manageable for small households or those new to CSA.
Think about extras: Many farms offer tours, dinners, kids’ outings and other events for CSA members. “If these are important to you, you probably don’t want a farm that’s three hours away,” Mulvey says.
Save money: Several Madison-area health plans offer rebates for CSA members. Contact your insurance company to find out if you’re eligible for a discount.
Consider the pickup location: Some farms have several pickup locations; in other cases, customers pick up CSA boxes on the farm.
Attend FairShare’s CSA open house: Held every March at the Monona Terrace, the event is a great way to meet growers, ask questions and learn more about specific farms.
Attend FairShare’s CSA open house: Held every March at the Monona Terrace, the event is a great way to mee-t growers, ask questions and learn more about specific farms.
Hungry for More?
Learn more about the market—or what to do with its bounty—through these fantastic resources
The Dane County Farmers’ Market: A Personal History by Mary and Quentin Carpenter. The authors, both former market managers, recount the market’s history from 1972 to 2000.
The Farm Fresh Atlas, an online list of farms, businesses, restaurants and markets in southern Wisconsin that sell products directly to customers. Find it on REAP’s website, reapfoodgroup.org.
From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Farm-Fresh, Seasonal Produce, produced by the FairShare CSA Coaltion (formerly the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition). This A-to-Z cookbook is great for making the most of market ingredients.
The Wisconsin Local Foods Journal by Joan Peterson and Terese Allen. It’s an annual guide with a seasonal produce calendar, recipes, storage tips and interviews with market vendors. Learn more at wisconsinlocalfoodsjournal.com.
Fresh Market Wisconsin: Recipes, Resources and Stories Celebrating Wisconsin Farm Markets and Roadside Stands by Terese Allen. Allen, a Madison cookbook author, food columnist and former chef, has shopped at the market since its inception and is a longtime board member of REAP Food Group.