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
The Dane County Farmer’s Market, which rings Madison’s Capitol Square, begins selling the state’s freshest produce, sweetest bakery and creamiest cheese at 6 a.m. each Saturday from mid-April through early November. A visit to Madison would be incomplete without starting the day early amid the towers of sweet corn, bushels of vine-ripened tomatoes and bunches of wild flowers available from the market’s 150 stalls.
In fact, it’s possible do an entire Capital City culinary tour in microcosm without leaving the square or its environs. Madison has one of the highest restaurant-per-capita ratios in North America, and the dining diversity is endless. Within the past decade the square has again captured the city’s heartbeat, and some of the finest dining – breakfast, lunch and dinner – is within easy reach of the Capitol.
Those not content to stroll the square with hot coffee, fresh fruit or Amish bakery in hand can stop in at the Marigold Kitchen, 118 S. Pinckney St. Whether your tastes run to the chile-poached eggs with French rosemary toast, prosciutto ham and manchego cheese ($6), or French toast brioche drizzled with pastry cream, seasonal berries and pure maple syrup, Marigold’s breakfast will awaken your taste buds with delightful sensations.
Mornings can be spent browsing the market stalls or sifting through the eclectic shops on State Street, which connects the square to the UW-Madison campus a mile away. State Street is loaded with fine restaurants, but a trip back to the square yields some special lunch experiences.
Thirsty for a little local brew? (It’s 5 p.m. somewhere.) Stop in at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., 123 E. Doty St., Madison’s oldest brewpub located in the former Fess Hotel. Try some of brewmaster Rob LoBreglio’s Stone of Scone Scotch Ale or Crop Circle Wheat while sampling some Inner Warmth Peanut Stew from the extensive pub menu. You won’t be disappointed.
If your tastes run toward international beers, The Cooper’s Tavern, 20 W. Mifflin St., part of the local Food Fight Restaurant Group, has a wide selection of brews, as well as one of Madison’s best reuben sandwiches. If you’re lucky, you may be seated in the “snug,” a room-within-a-room patterned after the historic sections set aside in British pubs for female drinkers.
Other nearby options include the Capital Tap Haus, 107 State St., which exclusively serves beers from Middleton’s Capital Brewery, and Brocach Irish Pub & Restaurant, 7 W. Main St., about as genuine a taste of the auld sod as you can find stateside. (“Brocach” is Gaelic for “badger’s den.”)
Walk off your libation with a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center,
1 John Nolen Dr., a tour of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, located in Overture Center for the Arts at 227 State St., or a look inside the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 30 W. Mifflin St., with its database of Wisconsin service men and women dating back to the Civil War. You can visit all three in one afternoon.
Dinner is when the Capitol Square restaurants really shine, and the options are many. Madison restaurants helped pioneer the use of local sustainable agricultural products on restaurant menus, and L’Etoile, 1 S. Pinckney St., was at the forefront. Current owner/chef Tory Miller makes some of Madison’s most memorable meals, while L’Etoile’s sister gastropub Graze, located across the aisle in the U.S. Bank building lobby, follows the same ethos, but in a casual, lower-priced atmosphere.
A decade or so ago L’Etoile’s “chief forager” Tami Lax split off to create Harvest, 21 N. Pinckney St., which also partners with local farmers, allowing chef Derek Rowe to create award-winning dishes. Recently, Lax also chose to return to her rural Wisconsin roots and create The Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St., highlighting the best of Wisconsin’s regional cuisine as its own unique genre. If you crave Sheboygan bratwurst done right, this is the place to go.
We’ve already mentioned Food Fight, and the city’s premier restaurant group also owns three downtown eateries of very different style. Meat lovers should visit Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse, 130 S. Pinckney St., which serves certified Angus beef and robust, classic dishes with dashes of seasonal flavor. Seafood lovers can step right around the corner to Ocean Grill, 117 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which receives fresh seafood shipments six days a week. (Check out the champagne bar.)
For a truly special treat, try Fresco Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge, located high atop MMoCA. Dine indoors or outdoors on cuisine as contemporary as the art on the two floors below while enjoying a rooftop city view dominated by an illuminated Capitol dome. It’s a perfect way to end your trip along Madison’s downtown foodie trail.