Farmers’ market brings consumers, producers together

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer


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

– Lisa Neff