When the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose a place to kick off National Farmers Market Week, they chose the Dane County Farmers Market — from the 8,268 farmers markets in the country.
"We've heard it's one of the largest and most successful," said Anne L. Alonzo, USDA administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service.
As thousands of consumers met with over 150 farmer-vendors around the state's most famous square, she called the market "pretty phenomenal" and said she was "blown away by the size of the market."
Dane County Farmers Market manager Bill Lubing said this market has been going for 42 years and on any given Saturday has 150 vendor-members selling their wares around the capitol square with upward of 20,000 customers coming to purchase everything from asparagus to zucchini and all the vegetables in between.
"We also have members with beef, pork, chicken, emu, bison, rabbit, venison, elk," he added.
There's a feeling of family, he said, as the vendors set up, but they all know they are in a competitive market and will need to come up with something unique if they want to survive.
The market is at its largest and most famous during the summer months, but it also continues throughout the year, moving indoors for the colder months. It has become a place for growers to extend their season and their income.
"We have seen a rise in frost-sweetened spinach and now have Wisconsin-grown ginger," Lubing said. "Many of our growers have experimented with hoop houses and extending their growing seasons."
People can buy the usual things, of course, such as a flat of strawberries, but they can also find unusual things such as lemongrass. "The influence of Hmong growers has been enormous.
"People sell here because it's their livelihood, but it's also a great place to test products," Lubing said.
One of the great strengths of the market, he believes, is the personal connection that is forged week after week, as farmers get to know their customers and vice versa.
"The consumers build a relationship and they feel it if 'their' farmer has a crop failure or some other setback," he said. "That's a powerful component and one of the reasons why our market does so well."
Lubing said the Dane County Farmers Market is for producers only — no one can bring in items they have purchased somewhere else — and it is the largest member-run market in the nation.
They have 288 members, about 150 of whom are present at the Saturday morning market. There is a five-year waiting list for those who want to sell their products at this market, he added.
Since the market is held around the city square, which is technically a Wisconsin State Park, there are fees and permits to be paid, and stall owners pay contract fees to have their areas staked out.
The market has grown along with the local food movement.
"This market began with five or six farmers selling beets, greens and jams and hoping to get them sold," Lubing said.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who toured the farmers market with the USDA official, said it was "visionary" and helped spur the local and regional food movement because of its "committed and passionate members."
The huge farmers market on the square is far from the only one in Dane County. He noted there are 25 others in the county, and many of them are going on at the same time on Saturday mornings.
Alonzo said this was the USDA's 15 th annual National Farmers Market Week, and officials from the agency were fanning out throughout the country to call attention to the nation's best farmers markets.
"We chose this market to kick off National Farmers Market Week because it is so popular, so big and is the largest producer-only farmers market in the nation," she said.
"This market truly embodies the best in farmers markets with fresh and delicious foods; and it puts a face on farmers for its customers," she added.
Alonzo said the farm bill passed by Congress was very good to local and regional food systems and organic production. "I'm excited about the heightened focus on those areas and their ability to support small and mid-sized producers and beginning farmers.
"Strengthening local food systems is one of the four pillars of rural development."
Soglin said farmers markets are not a new idea. "In effect we've recaptured a concept that's centuries old — access to local food."
Many of the farmers meeting the consumers at their booths around the square were up at 3 or 4 a.m. to get packed up.
The mayor said critical access to good, wholesome food is important, and the purchasing power of consumers goes back into the pockets of growers. A local program in Madison matches food stamp (SNAP) money so that consumers can get even more locally-grown nutritious food, he said.
Soglin currently serves as the chairman of the Food Policy task force for the U.S. Council of Mayors.
Mark Olson of Renaissance Farms in Spring Green was the first to bring pesto to this market when nobody knew what it was. He's been coming to this market since he was in high school.
Back then, he recalled, there were not enough vendors to fill one side of the square. In the intervening 25-30 years, the products have changed.
"We have stayed current with consumer desires," he added.
Olson believes that having this large and growing farmers market in downtown Madison was one of the key factors in the revitalization of the city.
"At that time, most of the shops on the square were empty and hot American muscle cars cruised the square," he said. "Farmers markets have the potential to bring communities together."