All it takes is one human traffic jam to understand why you need a distinct strategy to navigate the narrow sidewalks of the Dane County Farmers Market, which encircles Madison’s Capitol Square each Saturday from now through October.
As traffic jams go, this one was relatively friendly. Starting at the corner where the State Street Mall runs into Carroll Street and the Square, we endured a long, slow crawl east on Carroll towards West Washington Avenue. We dodged baby strollers and coaster wagons filled with produce, avoided dawdlers clustered at the various booths, and sidestepped shoppers already weary from the street’s modest uphill climb.
It wouldn’t have mattered if our brains were hemorrhaging, our parking meter was about to expire, or even if we just had to really pee: Sticking to this sidewalk slog meant we were headed nowhere fast. It was the last straw — the moment we knew we had to develop our own Farmers Market strategy, one that suited our needs while going with the market’s natural flow to maximize our shopping experience.
Founded in 1972 by former Madison Mayor Bill Dyke in an attempt to bridge the state’s urban and rural cultures, the Dane County Farmers Market replicates open-air markets Dyke had seen on his travels in Europe. The state’s first and largest farmers market — also believed to be the largest in the country — offers only Wisconsin-grown produce and agricultural products to eager shoppers.
What started with just five booths during its inaugural week almost 45 years ago has blossomed into as many as 180 vendors selling everything from arugula to venison and cheese bread to fruit preserves to weekly crowds of roughly 15,000 shoppers per Saturday at peak season. Experienced market-goers well understand the tricks and techniques of navigating the market for maximum convenience. Here are some of the more useful strategies and shortcuts.
It’s all a matter of timing. The market is technically open for business from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., but vendor arrivals and departures often depend on who they are, how far they’ve come and what they’re selling. Chances are if vendors run out of their primary products, they will fold up their stands and leave.
For shoppers, earlier is better, especially if you can arrive at or shortly before 9 a.m. Early-bird sales will have been underway for a few hours and chances are most vendors have not yet run out of hard-to-find seasonal items like ramps (a species of wild leeks) and scapes (the flower stalks of garlic plants eaten as a vegetable).
There are enough shoppers during the early hours to bring some energy to the proceedings, but the human traffic jams have not yet started to form and nearby parking is still plentiful.
Travel counter-clockwise for ease and speed. For whatever reason, most of the Farmers Market foot traffic moves counter-clockwise. Those who attempt to swim against the tide generally get hung up in the crowd, can’t get close to the booths and actually slow their own progress. In this case, the road less traveled is inefficient, obstructive and a lot less interesting.
Take advantage of shortcuts and “bypass routes.” Shoppers who stick to the sidewalk will have the best view of the booths, but will spend the most time navigating the market. Those who want to shop only a few pre-selected vendors have found other ways to get around.
The Capitol lawn is up for grabs all summer long. It hosts some 30,000 music lovers each Wednesday night for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square — but it can also serve as a bypass route and gathering spot for Farmers Market shoppers.
Families gather there to relax during their shopping experience, while those in a hurry jump the small barricade and create their own express lane to circumvent the crowds and clogs. Be careful not to tread on the flowerbeds, but do what you need to do to get through.
Walking along the sidewalks on opposite sides of the streets is another option. In fact that’s best the way to visit the food carts and restaurants open for Saturday morning business and get up close and personal with the many street musicians entertaining the weekly crowds. This season’s water main construction projects on the Square make this a little more challenging, but not impossible to negotiate.
One of the best strategies may be cutting through the Capitol itself. Its doors are open, its architectural views grand and it has restrooms available for those who’ve had a little too much coffee.
Shop wisely, and well. It helps to know ahead of time what you are looking for, and the Farmers Market website offers an update of what will be available at the market for a specific week. You can also sign up for an e-newsletter to have that list delivered directly to your computer or mobile device.
But it can be even more fun to simply browse the vendors and see what catches your eye. Whether you’re looking for hickory nuts for a recipe, have been waiting to try spicy kimchi (fermented Korean cabbage) or want wildflowers to decorate your table, you will find them all during your travels around the square.
Some Saturdays are better than others. Certain Saturday events on the Capitol Square can make visiting the Farmers Market more challenging — or entertaining — than others. On June 18, the World Naked Bike Ride will visit the Square at 11 a.m., followed by Maxwell Street Days (July 18), the Paddle and Portage canoe race (July 30), the Madison Mini-Marathon (Aug. 20) and the annual Taste of Madison (Sept. 3).
The only event that moves the market off the square and onto the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., however, is Art Fair on the Square (July 9). Plan for additional traffic and parking issues on all of those days.
Leave Fido at home. The Farmers Market has a no-dogs-allowed rule for safety reasons, but that doesn’t stop people from bringing their pets along with them. However, given the cheek-to-jowl crowds and the stress that may bring to some animals, it’s best not to subject your canine friends, those around you and yourselves to the experience. What’s more, violators have been known to be ticketed.
Unfortunately, there is no corresponding no-double-wide-baby-strollers rule.
SIDEBAR: It Ain’t Over When It’s Over
The April-to-October Dane County Farmers Market is one of the Saturday morning highlights for many Madison foodies, but the program also offers year-round options for shoppers to get their produce on.
In addition to Saturday, there also is a Wednesday version of the Farmers Market that runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in front of the City-County Building during the same summer season as its larger counterpart on the Capitol Square.
In November the market goes indoors and is open for business Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to noon through December 17 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, 1 John Nolen Drive. After that, a much smaller version of the market moves to the Madison Senior Center, 330 W. Mifflin St. and runs until the spring season begins in April.
Make sure you eat a light breakfast this Labor Day weekend. You’ll need the space for Taste of Madison, the annual celebration of all things culinary and gastronomical. Vendors representing 89 different local restaurants will surround Capitol Square for the weekend, each offering affordable examples of their regular menu fare.A variety of musical acts will also perform throughout the day, and volunteers’ hourly earnings will go to benefit Madison-area nonprofits.
Visit tasteofmadison.com for a full list of attendees.
Sept. 5 and 6
Does public art breed street crime?
“I’m not aware of any connection,” says Joel DeSpain, public information officer for the Madison Police Department.
But the Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development plans to probe the issue during a meeting of its downtown coordinating committee 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 at the Madison Central Library. The public is invited to take part.
The issue came to the forefront in an Oct. 1 editorial in The Wisconsin State Journal. The editorial suggested that an installation called “Philosophers’ Stones” contributed to “drug dealing and prostitution,” as well as “abusive language” and littering at the top of State Street. “Pull the artsy stones from the top of State Street,” the editorial opined.
The “stones” are 34 granite and 10 bronze cylinders, angled to form seats and tabletops. They comprise a 2004 work of public art by Jill Sebastian, professor of sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
More of the stones are to be added at the base of Bascom Hill, but so far they’re spread along the length of State Street, with the predominance at the intersection with Mifflin Street, proximate to Capitol Square.
No area business owners were cited in the editorial for having complained about the stones, but an earlier article credited Ian’s Pizza and unnamed “observers.” Turning from crime to arts criticism, the State Journal concluded, “This awkward attempt at public art won’t be missed. It’s never been popular with the general public.”
I spoke with other unnamed observers who countered that the stones are indeed popular, especially on weekends. For all we know, there would be more crime if there were no art at all. Prior to the top of State Street becoming a popular congregating place, Peace Park in mid-State was the place to converge, according to DeSpain. “There were similar problems there until infrastructure was changed,” he recalls.
Ironically, part of the solution was the introduction of public art.
And DeSpain points out, “Certainly, other parts of the isthmus (also) get a good deal of police attention, particularly lower State Street and the 600 block of University Avenue.”
The Madison Arts Commission has no process for de-accessioning works. Sebastian says that creating and installing the “Philosophers’ Stones” cost $150,000.
“It would cost much more to pull it out,” she says. “The construction folks did a fabulous job.”
Sebastian regrets that debate has turned away from the real human issues. “Why is there no in-depth investigative reporting on the condition of the homeless or the claims about prostitution and drug dealing on State Street?” she asks. “What customer base supports those activities if indeed they occur?
“Calling to remove art doesn’t address the root causes but makes amusing reading based on erroneous, unsupported assumptions,” Sebastian says. “If adding art or removing it were a quick solution, wouldn’t that be easy?”
PHOTOS: Courtesy Jill Sebastian
Madison’s “Philosophers’ Stones,” by Milwaukee sculptor Jill Sebastian.
Email WiG editors about this story, or with a story idea.
Madison’s favorite food festival, now in its fourth decade, returns. More than 200 different menu items from 80 restaurants will fill Capitol Square during the two-day event, which also includes live musical performances and a “Best of Taste” competition.
Admission is free, and food samples range from $1 to $4. For more information, visit tasteofmadison.com.
2 to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31
For a list of more great things to do in Wisconsin this summer visit: ’10 must-do Wisconsin summer activities’
On April 21, when Larry Johnson officially opens the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Madison’s Capitol Square, there’s a good chance he’ll already have irate customers waiting.
“We open at 6 a.m., and there are several ladies who routinely chastise me for not opening earlier,” says Johnson, the market’s manager and a farmer from nearby Brooklyn. “I get there at 4:15 as it is.”
The market closes at 2 p.m.
Johnson is not the only early bird to the market, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. As many as 170 vendors from around the state arrive at about 5 a.m. to set up their stalls, put out their produce and begin convivial conversations with locals and tourists, who show up to buy fruits, vegetables, meats, bakery goods and other treats.
The market will continue every Saturday through Nov. 10.
Shoppers of all ages and demographics stroll the booths in search of hard-to-find ramps in the spring, plump red tomatoes during the summer and squash of all types as the weather takes on its fall chill. Chefs from local restaurants turn out early on Saturdays, pulling wagons they will fill with produce to serve to customers throughout the week.
Shoppers spend about $8 million at the market each year, Johnson says, as well as an additional $6 million at area hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Kids in strollers, college students and senior citizens mix and mingle with vendors, many of whom have to hustle to keep up with shoppers’ demands.
About 300 farmers have memberships that allow them to sell at the market, although not all of them show up every week, says Johnson, who has been market manager for the past 10 years.
“We know those who only grow asparagus will be here in the spring and those who only grow pumpkins will be here in the fall,” he says. “We’re able to alternate the spaces.”
There is a five-year waiting list for vendors to become part of the market, a goal that’s well worth the patience. On a good Saturday in the summer, as many as 20,000 people stroll the square – almost all of them counter-clockwise – noshing and supporting Wisconsin farmers financially while gaining greater knowledge about the food they eat and where it comes from.
“Customers can talk to the vendors about types of food, how it grows, where it’s from and how to prepare it,” Johnson says. It’s a way to connect with healthy sources of sustenance and gain greater nutritional knowledge, he adds.
There is no rule that pro- duce for sale must be organ- ic, and only about 10 of the vendors have sought certifi- cation. The market’s only rule is that all merchandise sold must be produced in Wisconsin, a requirement that dates back to the market’s earliest days.
The Dane County Farmers’ Market, the largest producer-only market in the country, began in 1972 when then-Madison Mayor Bill Dyke wanted to bring the county’s urban and rural cultures together. Inspired by European open-air markets, Dyke worked with city officials to establish a prototype. The first market in 1972 featured just five farmers selling their wares.
By 1973, farmers were parking on or near the square on Friday nights in hopes of getting the best spots the next day. By 1974, then-market manager Jonathan Barry, a farmer who went on to serve in the Legislature and is currently deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, began issuing season passes for the stalls in an attempt to manage the growing market.
The market now rings Capitol Square. There also is a Wednesday morning market in front of the Dane County Courthouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which bisects the square, and indoor winter markets – all of which sell Wisconsin agricultural products.
There are nearly 200 other farmers’ markets scattered around the state, from Kenosha in the southeast to Cornucopia, the state’s northern-most community on the Lake Superior shore. Most operate from June to October, but none has the scope or capacity of the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
“It’s really a downtown social hub where many people meet each week,” John- son says. “And we’re open rain or shine. Or snow.”
In the marketplace
Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States.
The outdoor market opens on April 21 at the Capitol in Madison and takes place Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Wednesday market in the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Madison opens April 25 and takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. through November, rain or shine.
Farmers’ markets exist in many other Wisconsin communities – from Antigo to Wood County.
For listings, visit www.savorwisconsin.com.
– Lisa Neff