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I try to go to the Dane County Farmers Market on Madison’s Capitol Square at least once a year. I don’t remember getting there last year so the coolish but sunny day last Saturday seemed to be a good choice for a visit. 

As always on any reasonable day, the sidewalks were almost shoulder to shoulder with people strolling counterclockwise (like most race track ovals) around the quarter mile square passing in front of the 150 (or so) vendors offering products they have grown or produced on their farming areas. Note - that’s a rule for this market, no reselling, although I’ve seen a couple of instances of that rule being broken over the years. 

A bad growing year

The fact that I saw very little farm produce for sale Saturday was indicative of the wet, late planting and slow growing growing season we’ve experienced.  A vendor who usually has tables of farm produce was only offering jams, jellies and other canned delicacies in glass jars.

“Everyone is three weeks to a month behind normal this year,” he says. “You won’t find much today. Come back in a week or two” 

And, he was right. I only walked about half of the Square and saw tables of green onions, rhubarb,  radishes, lettuce and kale. But, still a good many potted flowers, hanging baskets and such.  

Cave aged

Willie Lehner, Blue Mounds and his Bleu Mont Cheese display was there as usual, offering a  variety of “Cave Aged” cheeses made from milk from pastured cows.  His artisan type cheeses have won a good number of awards over the years.  His cheeses are not the cheap commodity types that you mix in mac and cheese dishes, rather, they are cheeses you savor, perhaps with a paired wine, with friends at a dinner party or at home on a restful evening,  Contact Lehner and Bleu Mont at 608-767-2875.

Many reasons

I’m never quite sure why 10,000 - 15,000 people flock to the Dane County Farmers Market on the Square each Saturday during the season. I do know it is a “destination”  for many. As has happened during my other visits, many of the folks I talked with were from places like Chicago (visiting relatives), Milwaukee (visiting a friend), Minnesota (a wedding), and even Phoenix (reunion with a friend). A Milwaukee visitor said he’d long heard about the market and “finally got here and it was fun.”

Eating seems to be a prime reason why many Madisonians, especially UW students come to the market. I see them wandering the sidewalk, nibbling donuts and sipping exotic fruit drinks offered at food wagons at the head of State Street.  I doubt if these purveyors are actually market vendor members, rather they are probably fringe sellers just outside the market trail itself. But, it all works. 

Biggest

The Dane County Farmers Market on the Square has long been declared the biggest producer-only market in the country, a claim not ever contested. And the producers involved offer all kinds of foods: in-season produce of all kinds, cheese makers with fried curds, pasture raised beef from hamburger to steak, Door County cherries and a wide array of flowers and plants. 

In 1972

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."

Dyke said "go ahead, you handle it," and Bob Brennon of the Chamber of Commerce got us 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."

Producers only

The 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."  In other words, no junk, imports or resales from old inventories. Just local farm produced products.

Hmong farmers

As I wrote in this column many years ago, the face of the vendors has changed as Hmong immigrants came to the midwest without jobs or money. They came to Wisconsin poor and homeless after being displaced from their homeland after the Vietnam War.

Many took up their former occupation of farming and rented small acreage and began producing flowers and vegetables. They began marketing in a logical way: at farmers markets and built up regular customers.

Today they still make the lengthy weekly trip from their farms. A young Hmong teenager explained how they live in the Eau Claire area and leave home at about 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning, get to Madison about three hours later and sleep in their truck for a couple of hours.

“We need to get here early to get our space and set up before the market opens,” she says.  

Members vendors only

Today, the Dane County Farmers Market has about 300 members who can offer farm products at three events: Saturdays 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.

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 Dane County Farmers Market. 

Enjoying

And you need not buy anything to enjoy the Market on the Square. Watching people from the many available sitting spots and the Capitol lawn is perhaps the biggest activity. And walking the Square and standing for several hours is great exercise. Just meeting friends, old and new, who you run into amongst the crowd is always interesting.

Of course there are farmers markets everywhere in Wisconsin (about 300) and across the country (some 9,000) nowadays. Each with its own rules and appeals. Go to “farmers markets” on the internet and you’ll get pages of information.  

Using only the street side on Capital Square, charging no admission, but offering a plethora of  just-off-the-farm foods and products, makes the Dane County Farmers Market the place to be, the place to be seen and the place to take visitors on Saturday mornings in Madison.  

I really plan to attend another time this year and do a bit of buying like maybe apples and cherries and other things that don’t need cooking. That is if I can get my knees working properly to do the uphill walking. Hopefully.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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