The Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, WI is the largest producer-only farmers market in the U.S. during the growing season; it also has a large and popular winter market. Everything sold at the market is Wisconsin-grown or produced. With rare exceptions, the grower/producer is the person behind the market stand, so customers can ask questions about growing methods of the “person with their hands in the soil.” Personal friendships are forged between customers and producers.
“There is a social component to the success of the market,” explained market manager Bill Lubing. “Although the market has a wide variety of products conducive to one-stop grocery shopping, at times, all a customer may need is a few pounds of potatoes. They come to the Farmers Market to buy them because they can also see their friends, including the vendors.”
Lubing backs market rules that allow vendors free choice in what products to sell. “With so many members all competing against each other, members have to work hard and be creative to be competitive. I think this benefits the market.
“Last year we brought in 15 new people from our [seven to eight year] waiting list. Three of these happened to be bakeries. We have several baked good vendors already. My thought is, “That’s great. They’d better bring something good!’ Stella’s Bakery, for example, bakes and sells thousands of loaves of their extremely popular Spicy Cheese Bread every Saturday. The competition keeps everyone on their toes.”
Many vendors specialize. Snug Haven Farm, for example, specializes in “Frost Sweet Spinach,” liberally offered for sampling and sold from late fall through February or early March. “It’s some of the best spinach anywhere,” Lubing commented, and we agreed, after tasting proffered samples of the exceptionally large, thick, sweet leaves.
Several farms specialize in long storing root vegetables for the winter market. Greenhouses and high tunnels are on the rise among vendors. “Greenhouse-grown mixed salad greens will be available through February, and greenhouse tomatoes through the end of January.”
The farmers market also boasts a stunning variety of meats and poultry, in addition to fresh trout. To keep these at a safe temperature, vendors have developed creative ways to bring plug-in coolers and freezers into and out of the market.
Customers can purchase fresh trout from a northern Wisconsin farm that has an artesian well which provides fresh water; bison; sausage; chicken; beef; pork; and at times, goose, duck, rabbit, and turkey, in addition to emu meat, emu eggs, emu oil, and emu oil soap made on the farm. The market has stringent rules about how long a chicken or larger animal must be owned and raised by the vendor before it can be sold at the producer-only market.
“We’re very proud of our cheesemakers, continued Lubing. “They have won national and international awards for their cheeses. Some are relatively new to cheesemaking, and have amazing stories to tell.” Crafts and decorative items, including beeswax candles and dried flower wreaths, are available at the winter market, but all must contain a majority of content that was produced by the seller.
Competition among vendors has also resulted in the sale of value-added products that can be sold all year long, made from an over-abundance of tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and other vegetables in season. “This has really been good for the overall sales at that market,” noted Lubing. “We get thousands of tourist at the market. Before the value-added products were available, many did not purchase. Who wants to take home a 5-pound head of cabbage on the plane? But an 8 ounce jar of salsa or tomato sauce can be an attractive take-home item.
“Mary Shelby had a super-abundance of fresh sweet corn and beans one year. I said, ‘Why not make corn relish that you can sell throughout the year?’ She did, and was very successful. She and other canners of value-added products have stimulated a lot of other growers to can, freeze and dry products.”
On the snowy, icy day we visited the market, at the Alsum’s stand, we were offered samples of delicious, warmed frozen sweet corn, a fresh market specialty for the Alsums in the summer that is frozen in large quantities for winter sales.
In order to prevent any possible problems with processed, value-added foods, the Board decided that although Wisconsin state law allows sales of foods processed in an uncertified kitchen below a certain gross dollar sales, for the market, food must be processed in certified, inspected processing kitchens. A number of these have cropped up in the last 10 years, producing more economic development in the area.
“Some have staff to help with processing and also provide recipes, containers, lids and labels. These processing kitchens are part of the whole local foods model. So are the trade shows that now appeal to WI growers and producers interested in selling to hospitals and schools. These are all economic spin-off effects of the market.
“The vendors really are innovative entrepreneurs, and they encourage their customers to can, freeze and dry in-season produce themselves. I love the educational aspects of the market. A lot of people are intimidated by whole, fresh food. At the market, customers learn how to peel garlic, cut up whole chickens, and prepare bitter melons, as well as what to do with other unfamiliar products. If they don’t know what to do with it, they won’t buy it.”
Four years ago, a vendor started selling fresh ginger. “It took him three years to figure out how to grow it. Today there are two more vendors of fresh ginger, now a popular product. Another vendor put together in one bag all the ingredients needed for making salsa, a convenience for customers.
Butter Mountain Potatoes, which sells more shapes and colors of potatoes than most people knew existed, has created a niche-market for the winter by choosing varieties that can be planted in July and harvested late in the season. This gives them really fresh, firm potatoes to sell in the late fall, winter and early outdoor markets.
The late winter market has an additional draw: breakfasts at the market, some quite fancy, prepared by professional chefs from food available from market vendors. The chefs are assisted by volunteers, including middle school students, who can learn food prep techniques and recipes from the chefs.
“It’s an opportunity for local chefs to showcase their skills and demonstrate the delicious foods that can be prepared from market-purchased food. We can sell 400 plates of breakfast on a Saturday morning. Even in late winter, in addition to the 400 who come for breakfast, 400-500 other people come into the Saturday market to shop.”
A quality newsletter, emailed every week, informs customers about products available, what’s new, and announcements, as well as providing interesting producer profiles and seasonal recipes, such as Cranberry Honey Brussels Sprouts.