During the week, the Capitol Square in Madison is mostly a quiet, park-like setting with people — often tourists — casually walking the near three-quarters of a mile of sidewalk, pointing, taking pictures and just gawking, as well as young professionals clad in suit, tie, skirt, blouse or slacks rushing in and out of the Capitol on business.
Nice days will find people eating lunch in the sun while seated on the many benches, plethora of low walls or on the long flights of steps leading to the Capital building.
Saturday on the Capitol Square is different. That's the day when crowds of people come to the famed Dane County Farmers Market. Sidewalks are jammed on every side of this stately building with people, maybe 20 thousand of them, slowly walking shoulder to shoulder in a counter clockwise direction.
Lining the outside of the perimeter sidewalk surrounding the Capitol grounds are the vendors, probably 150 of them in individual booths (mostly with protective tents overhead), selling a wide variety of seasonal produce.
You can see fresh fruits and vegetables from apples through cabbage to zucchini: meat by the pound, quarter or half; jams, jellies, honey, spices and flavorings from sweet to fiery hot; flowers, plants and herbs to cook with or look at; cheeses from small, family operated factories; and about every kind of food product that can be grown, hauled to Madison and offered for sale.
Then there are the several locations where you can watch activist groups pass out literature or verbally try to convince you to join their cause ranging from the far-out to traditional.
The Dane County Farmers Market dates to 1972 when Jonathan Barry, a Mount Horeb produce farmer, began selling produce on State Street in Madison.
"But the meter maids kept giving me and the buyers parking tickets," Barry said. "I still wanted to sell in Madison but couldn't find a location. I called Ron Jensen of the Dane County-Extension and talked with Mayor Bill Dyke who liked the idea and John Polich of UW Extension who said it should be a producers market only."
Finally Dyke said "go ahead, you handle it," and Bob Brennon of the Chamber of Commerce got them insurance, Barry said. In the fall of 1972, they held a trial market with five vendors from a list Jensen had provided and 3,000 to 4,000 customers with a parking problem.
"The credit should go to Mayor Dyke, Jensen and the Chamber of Commerce who got us insurance," Barry said. "I was just the manager ... until 1983."
Today, the Dane County Farmers Market has 288 members who offer farm products at three events: every Saturday, some 150 vendors offer their goods on the Capitol Square; on Wednesdays, a smaller market is offered on Martin Luther King Drive in front of the City-County Building; and from mid-November to early April, indoor markets are held at several locations.
The DCFM market is acknowledged as the largest producer-only farmers market in the U.S. It's success is often attributed to the rules established in the beginning: "Sellers may offer only products that they themselves helped to produce, thus prohibiting the sale of clothing, art objects, crafts, animals and produce brought from other areas."
Vendors tend to stay a long time, and there is a long list of prospective sellers waiting in line for the opportunity to gain space at the DCFM.
Dan Aultman who owns "The Summer Kitchen" said it is the only vendor to occupy the same space for the entire 42 years. Aultman worked for many years with the iconic Jim Schroeder, the Highland farmer known for canning wild plums and apples, and has continued the business since Schroeder's death in 2011.
The Summer Kitchen offers some 55 kinds of jams and jellies from Amore Jam (apricot and orange) to Wisconsin Jam (Macintosh apples and cranberries) every week at the DCFM and on the Internet (thesummerkitchenjams.com).
Jerry and Nancy Marr are longtime beef raisers (45 Angus mother cows) at their 256-acre farm in the hill country near Mineral Point who decided to get involved in direct marketing of their mostly pasture-raised beef.
In the late 1990s, the Marrs realized they had little control of the beef price of the animals they raised and sold. They also knew their pastured beef was a plus for consumers seeking "natural" beef.
They learned for a couple of years at farmers markets in Fitchburg and Middleton before moving to Madison and the Dane County Farmers Market with coolers full of steaks, roasts and hamburger.
After 16 years of selling at the DCFM, Jerry said they are very pleased with the results. "We're here for the advertising as the contacts we make here lead to later sales of quarters and halves of beef."
The Marrs admitted selling at the farmers market is a lot of work; in fact they do not make the trip to Madison every week anymore.
"We have to get up at 3:45 a.m., load the freezers and coolers into the truck, make the hour long trip, set up the tent, erect signs and get everything arranged, meet and serve customers, pack up, take down and travel back to the farm ... and we're getting older. Many buyers order by phone (608-987-2508) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org)."
Has the current high price of beef affected your sales? I asked.
"No," Jerry responded. "Our customers know us, they know our beef is of the highest quality and they want to eat the best. Our highest price steaks were all gone early in the morning, and all we have left now (at noon) is a couple of pounds of hamburger."
Dale Marsden, McFarland, has been a beekeeper for 50 years and has been selling honey at the DCFM for 36 of those years where he is known as the "Bee Hat Man." His bees make honey from plants such as Russian Olive, dandelion, clover, basswood, goldenrod, wild aster and a host of others in the area along the Yahara south of Madison. He can be reached at the market or at 608-838-3992.
Hmong families from as far away as Eau Claire and Appleton and many places in between form a major segment of the fresh garden produce and flower vendors at the DCFM . They came to Wisconsin poor and homeless after being displaced from their homeland after the Vietnam War.
I remember a decade or more ago writing about Hmong families who had settled into permanent homes and resumed their agricultural way of life. Back then, each Hmong had a teenager or two who spoke English and interpreted for their parents. I asked some of this younger generation if they would follow their parents into farming? There answer was always a loud "no, were going to be engineers, lawyers doctors and such."
Saturday, I visited with two of the many Hmong vendors. Chue, a software developer, helping his parents who came from Laos in 1978 and farm 12 acres of produce near Eau Claire. No, Chue was not interested in farming, and the enterprise would end when his parents retire.
The others were Deng and Kabao, brother and sister who live in Minnesota but assist their parents who also farm in Eau Claire. Both are professionals now, and while they help their parents every week at the market, they have no plans to continue the small farm after their parents quit farming.
Are the predictions made by the young Hmong years ago coming true? It seems so, but who will replace them and grow the produce farm market goers now enjoy?
The Dane County Farmers Market is a great place to sell and buy food. I also think it is an extraordinary social event that brings people back again and again — for as many reasons as there are people walking the Square.