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.