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What’s next for the Dane County Farmers’ Market?

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What’s next for the Dane County Farmers’ Market?

Jul 06, 2022 | 8:00 am ET
By Marc Eisen
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What’s next for the Dane County Farmers’ Market?
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Masked customer at the Dane County Farmers' Market. The pandemic increased interest in smaller, local markets, but reduced traffic at the iconic Saturday market on Madison's Capitol Square. | Brent Nicastro Photography

The Dane County Farmers’ Market, widely praised as one of the best markets in the nation, marks its 50th anniversary this fall. It will be a time of well-earned celebration for the DCFM but tempered by the reality of change.

Reeling from 15 months of COVID-19 safety disruptions, the market seemed almost normal when it returned unfettered in April to its picturesque Saturday-morning setting on Madison’s impressive Capitol Square.

Except it wasn’t like old times. Those safety precautions, as required as they were, had frayed the bonds connecting farmers to customers for decades. Shopping patterns had shifted to favor smaller neighborhood markets that could spread out in parks and parking lots in a way the space-confined Saturday market could not. A digital order and pick-up plan at the Alliant Energy Center troubled both customers and farmers because it diminished their contact.

“COVID was quite a jolt,” says Ted Ballweg, co-founder of Savory Accents, a maker of pepper sauces and spices. “The pandemic put a lot of farmers on their own. They had to figure it out for themselves because there wasn’t an easy or one-size-fits-all solution.”

Some farmers even left their fields fallow because they didn’t know what to plant, Ballweg says. “Others made a business pivot that was so successful that they chose not to come back to the market.” And some just quietly retired or moved on when the non-pandemic circumstances of their lives changed.

The missing included well regarded anchor vendors like Pecatonica Valley Farms in Iowa County, Bushel & Peck from Beloit and Harmony Valley Farm and Driftless Organics from Viroqua. Other smaller vendors banded together to sell their goods through their own delivery network – notably Madison Farmers Unite — rather than through the DCFM online system.

“The Saturday market is still vibrant, but I think its heyday is over,” says Matt Smith, the mostly retired owner of Blue Valley Gardens in Blue Mounds. Known for his asparagus beds, Smith chose to sell his spears through Madison Farmers Unite this spring. He doubts he will ever return to the Saturday market.

Smith is not alone in throwing shade on the market.

Chris Covelli at the Dane County Farmers' Market
Chris Covelli at the Dane County Farmers’ Market | Photo by Brent Nicastro

Chris Covelli, founder of Tomato Mountain Farm in rural Brooklyn and, like Smith, a market veteran, says the Capitol Square market was the first and the best of the markets, but has gotten too big for its own good.

Too many gawkers drinking lattes and eating donuts, he complains. Not enough shoppers filling their market bags with produce.

Covelli, whose primary market is Chicago, still shows up at the Madison market, but says sales here have plunged. When we spoke he was fuming at how bad his carrot sales were despite for weeks being the only vendor selling carrots.

As a point of comparison, he told me he peddled from 700 to 800 pounds of carrots on a Saturday from 2013 to 2017. Now he has to hawk his carrots like “a goddamn carney to sell 300 lousy pounds.”

Not all farmers feel the same way

Jamie Bugel at the Dane County Farmers' Market | Photo by Brent Nicastro
Jamie Bugel at the Dane County Farmers’ Market | Photo by Brent Nicastro

It would be a mistake to overgeneralize farmers’ experiences. Market Manager Jamie Bugel says she hears “really positive things about sales.” Newer vendors in particular sound upbeat.

“Astonishing” is how baker Johnathan Dye, owner of Milwaukee-based Mr. Dye’s Pies, describes sales. “You can have a day at Dane County that’s like five days at a smaller market,” says Dye, who also attends Milwaukee area markets in Waukesha, Greenfield and Milwaukee’s Deer District.

Eva Denny and Caleb Swift, owners of Kingfisher Farm in Lafayette County, tell a similar story. The young couple was barely holding on selling fermented food, lamb and seasonal salads at Mount Horeb and Monroe markets when, after a five-year wait, they were admitted into the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

Johnathan Dye, Sr at the Mr. Dye's Pies stand | Photo by Brent Nicastro
Johnathan Dye, Sr at the Mr. Dye’s Pies stand | Photo by Brent Nicastro

“We are over the moon,” Denny happily reports of the expanded sales.

“We really enjoy the human aspect of selling at the market,” adds Swift. “The connections we make [with customers] are solely what we rely upon for sales. These are people who come back every week.”

For that bond, Denny and Swift have Jonathan Barry to thank.=

How it all began

Fifty years ago, the pony-tailed “back to the earth” vegetable farmer from the town of Primrose in Dane County, was selling produce from the rear of his truck on State Street in front of the legendary Ella’s Deli.

Barry kept getting parking tickets for plugging the meter, and it was driving him crazy. He cadged a meeting with Mayor Bill Dyke and found Dyke already thinking about a farmers market.

Madison’s downtown, once a bustling hub of retail, was in steep decline as suburban shopping malls began their 50-year reign. Downtown boosters crossed their fingers that a unique urban amenity like a farmers market would draw patrons. This was fresh thinking. Rather than doubling down on the losing strategy of trying to compete with the malls on their terms, the downtown was betting on untapped consumer interest in  authentic, locally grown food.

Barry became the point man, and by fall 1972 the Dane County Farmers’ Market (DCFM), had launched. This became a milestone event for Madison’s downtown revitalization. Pre-market, “you could blow off a cannon Saturday morning on the Square, and nobody would be bothered,” Barry recalls. Fifty years later, 20,000 people or more will show up on a summery Saturday morning. (The DCFM also runs a much smaller market Wednesday mornings in front of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.)

The Dane County market’s template was set from the get-go: Only Wisconsin goods could be sold. Farmers would run the operation, and they would only sell what they raised, grew or made. There would be no Georgia peaches or Florida sweet corn. And no flea market sideshow either. The person selling you the spring turnips or the free-range turkey at Thanksgiving would always be the responsible farmer.

The ‘culinary embodiment’ of progressive ideals

That same pure vision holds true today. Barry, who ran the market for the first seven years (and later was elected as Dane County’s executive), describes the market’s magic in terms the Kingfisher farmers would understand.

The farmers market humanizes the food transaction. It brings growers and consumers together. Friendships spring from casual conversations. For several hundred small farmers, the market income becomes a big chunk of their livelihood and “for many of them, through the generations, a means to sustain a lifestyle on the land,” says Barry, who still lives in Primrose.

A similar message resonates in The Flavor Of Wisconsin, the classic history of Badger State cuisine written by Harva Hachten for the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1981 and updated and expanded by Terese Allen in 2009. They rightly call the Dane County Farmers’ Market the “culinary embodiment of the region’s progressive, food-centered urban/ rural partnership.”

Today, DCFM membership is capped at 230 vendors, with some selling seasonally, others year round. (There is a wait list.) The Capitol Square market, which runs mid-April through November, can accommodate up to 130 stalls, says Bugel. Seniority determines who gets priority. It’s followed by a smaller indoor winter market first at the Monona Terrace convention center and later at the Garver Feed Mill.

Food chronicler Allen, who’s compiling a farmers market cookbook to celebrate the 50th anniversary (see sidebar), says the vitality of the Madison market refutes the stereotype that Wisconsin cuisine is limited to brats and cheese.

“There’s not a market in the country that can outshine it for food quality, product diversity, crowd size and plain old people-watching good fun,” says Allen.

All true. But those business changes born of COVID desperation that Ballweg cited are still shaking out, their long-term consequences for the market — good or bad — to be determined.

“People found their own path,” says Mary White, owner of Honey Bee Bakery in Madison. She spent eight years on the DCFM wait list, had four years of “really good” sales once she finally made it to the Saturday market, and then got slammed by the COVID lockdown. White says about two-thirds of her revenue evaporated when the Saturday market suspended operation.                  

Customers picking up their DCFM orders in a dusty Alliant center parking lot — “that whole vibe was different,” and it just didn’t work well for sales, White says. Scrambling to stay afloat, she turned to the smaller neighborhood markets where she started, and found them surging with new shoppers. White also became the organizer of Madison Farmers Unite, which offers consolidated online ordering for meat, vegetables, cheese and fermented products in Dane County.

Dane County Farmers' Market | Brent Nicastro Photography
Dane County Farmers’ Market | Brent Nicastro Photography

Community Supported Agriculture, a venerable crop-sharing system linking farmers with consumers, had a surge of its own. Hunkered-down Americans were avoiding grocery stores but still seeking healthy, fresh food. That was perfect for CSAs, which operate as a subscription service. Consumers pay a set fee early in the year for periodic deliveries of seasonal farm goods.

Harmony Valley Farm, one of the best known organic operations in the Midwest and a stalwart at the DCFM for decades, dropped out of the Saturday market to focus on its CSA. Harmony Valley’s website shows it delivering to the Twin Cities, La Crosse, Onalaska and to no fewer than 20+ pick-up sites in Dane County.

Tomato Mountain’s Chris Covelli, meanwhile, has been putting a new twist on CSAs by delivering directly to homes, allowing liberal substitutions and add-ons in subscriber boxes and by establishing a pay-as-you-go option.

“I mean, do people drive to a parking lot to pick up their mail?” he asks. “Why should they drive to a pick-up spot for their groceries?” He feels his streamlined delivery system produces a net carbon reduction because individual Tomato Mountain customers aren’t driving around to pick up their veggies.

Covelli considers his customer-focused CSA “the cutting edge” in farmer-marketing innovation. In the midst of the tumultuous COVIDlockdown, he says his Chicago-area sales jumped from 300 to 1,100 customers in eight weeks. Because demand so outstripped his supply, he says he probably turned away another 2,000 potential subscribers at a thousand dollars a pop.

Bushel & Peck’s COVID strategy, meanwhile, built on its existing assets. Founders Rich Horbaczewski and Jackie Gennett grow vegetables on 132 organic-certified acres and process them for B&P hot sauces and fermented vegetables in a large commercial kitchen that is connected to a combination restaurant and general store on a nicely restored block in Beloit.

Selling at the Alliant Center proved physically exhausting. “It was just too stressful. Everybody was panicking,” says Horbaczewski. He and Gennett took stock and decided to expand their kitchen. Bushel & Peck would sell online through Etsy, through small stores in Milwaukee and Chicago and by “co-packing” for other food producers, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless. (Co-packing is contract work in which B&P uses its kitchen to make products for other businesses according to their recipes.)

B&P’s new strategy included selling at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park on Chicago’s North Side but not at the Saturday market in Madison. Horbaczewski admits he’s ambivalent about the Dane County market.

When Bushel & Peck earned its spot on Madison’s Capitol Square, it was like moving up to major league baseball from the minor leagues, he says. Good money was made. But what he describes as the pettiness of the market rules, the occasional vendor feuds and the group’s resistance to change was aggravating.

Horbaczewski remembers complaining that the market’s protocol for setting up on Saturday mornings was just too laborious. An old-timer fended off his suggestions for speeding things up with a peremptory piece of advice: “He said I should work harder and not smarter.”

Still, Horbaczewski maintains his market membership and seniority.

Special anniversary events are coming

Dane County Farmers' Market
Photo by Brent Nicastro

It’s totally fitting that the Dane County Farmers Market will observe its 50th anniversary by publishing a market-related cookbook. After all, the DCFM’s farmstead cornucopia is compared  regularly to famed markets in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

Not to mention that Madison’s best restaurant chefs can be seen shopping the Saturday market. This includes Tori Miller of L’Etoile and Graze, Tami Lax of The Old Fashioned and Harvest, Itaru Nagano of Fairchild, and Francesco Mangano of Osteria Papavero among the kitchen masters.

Veteran food writer Terese Allen, with help from Joan and Ted Ballweg of Savory Accents,  is collecting the recipes from vendors and patrons alike and writing the book. The theme is “local ingredients, global recipes.” As Allen describes it, “We chose a theme that celebrates the growth, progress and influence of the DCFM community.”

Allen is the state’s premier food writer. She has  written, co-written or edited 13 books, all focused on aspects of Wisconsin food culture, including Bountiful Wisconsin: 110 Favorite Recipes; The Ovens Of Brittany Cookbook; and Fresh Market Wisconsin.

The deadline for recipe submissions is July 27. Little Creek Press is slated to  publish the book in spring 2023. The market’s 50th anniversary actually comes this September and will be marked by the “Hitch Your Wagon To The Market” fundraiser. Artists are invited to paint and decorate wagons for display on the Capitol Square. They will be auctioned off and the proceeds given to charity. For more information about the wagons, call Mark Olson of Renaissance Farm at 608-963-1803 or email him at: [email protected].

— ME

Farmers’ markets have a long history in agriculture-rich Wisconsin

Dane County Farmers' Market
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Hachten and Allen report that markets date to 1860 in Watertown and even earlier in Princeton, where a market grew out of the annual Green Lake county fair. Writer David Mollenhoff, in Madison: A History Of The Formative Years, cites a newly opened Madison farmers market in 1872 doing a “brisk business” on East Washington Avenue — only a block from the current site. (A later city-built market facility flopped miserably in 1910.)

Today, there are about 300 farmers markets in Wisconsin, according to Kristin Krokowski, a UW-Extension farm educator in Waukesha. “Markets all across the state have different cultures,” she says. Madison’s is highly social, a gathering occasion for friends. Others are “in and out” affairs where buyers are on a mission to find the Door County cherries for a pie. Certified organic produce earns a premium price in Madison, but not in the Milwaukee area where buyers are more frugal. Some markets have entertainment, others don’t. The presence of dogs can be controversial.

Krokowski happens to be married to a vegetable grower. When they travel, they check out the local markets. “The California markets are cookie-cutter identical,” she says. “In Wisconsin, they reflect our communities.”

Just ask Doug Poland, a lawyer who moved to Madison from Chicago in 2005. “Everybody told me that the farmers market was the quintessential Madison experience,” he says.

It was, and it changed Poland’s life.

A family tradition

As Poland tells it, he began biking to the market with his children bright and early at 7 every Saturday. “Getting kids up early to do anything is pretty hard,” he says with a laugh. “But when you develop a routine like that it becomes a family tradition…. It’s togetherness time.”

“We completely altered the way we ate and bought groceries in Chicago,” he adds. “Now we primarily rely on what I buy at the market to feed ourselves.”

Poland is active in the promotional group Downtown Madison Inc. He’s quick to cite the economic benefits generated by the market, including the spillover shopping and dining business from market-goers. But how the market strengthens the social fabric is just as important.

“There’s a life and liveliness downtown you can see Saturday mornings,” he says. “It’s students, it’s residents, it’s tourists. It’s people like me shopping. It’s especially important now with street life being so sparse in so many cities.”

Poland cites Chicago, also St. Paul where he attended his son’s college graduation in May and found its downtown streets eerily empty on a beautiful Friday night.

As Poland grasps, farmers markets are as much a tool of community building as they are a tool of food policy. And downtown Madison, many people would agree, could use some community building —  just as it did 50 years ago.

Like other urban centers, downtown Madison got walloped by the pandemic. Bars and restaurants wobbled and shut down or cut back  their hours. Retail, already under siege in the Amazon era, took a hit.

Craig Stanley, a commercial real estate consultant, picks up on the vibe that many Madisonians sense these days about downtown. There just aren’t a lot of people around…other than Saturday mornings. It’s not that if Jonathan Barry fired off that cannon on a Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., there wouldn’t be a casualty or two. But the downtown’s palpable energy, once a defining characteristic, has flagged. This despite the fact that residential construction of condos and apartments near the Capitol continues to boom.

The wildcard, Stanley suggests, is the uncertain future of hybrid offices in downtown Madison. Will the office crowd punch in three days a week and spend the other two days on a laptop at the kitchen table? Or will the old 9 to 5 routine return Monday through Friday? The bottom lines of restaurants, bars and office developers anxiously await the answer. (Stanley already sees the evidence of a declining office market.)

All this helps explain why the farmers market movement is so important for Madison. It remains an essential building block for a better community.

How the public sector stepped up

Dane County Farmers' Market
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Amid the chaos and disruption unleashed by the pandemic, something good happened in Dane County: Low-income households got a big taste of local homegrown vegetables, while farmers benefited from a new market for their wares.

County Executive Joe Parisi funneled $3.75 million of federal COVID-19 aid to fund the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, whose mission is to address hunger in the community.

The money will extend Dane County’s “Farm to Foodbank” pandemic program through December. The county’s financial manager, Chuck Hicklin, calls the new funding “a fantastic opportunity to provide some relief for food insecurity” in Dane County.

For veteran farmer Dan Deneen, owner of Black Earth Valley Produce, the program reduced the sales insecurity caused by the COVID bug. He says he sold $10,000 worth of produce to Second Harvest a few months ago at a price that matched anything he could get at the downtown and West Side farmers markets. (This allowed him, Deneen says, to stop selling at the downtown market.)

UW Extension researchers who looked at the new partnership judged it to be “very successful.” Farmers found new business to replace what they lost, recipients got fresh produce and Second Harvest learned to overcome the “onerous barriers” involved in buying local food from multiple small vendors.

Overall Dane County will spend $26.75 million on Farm to Foodbank, Hicklin says. It’s not the only government effort to combat hunger. The old federally funded Food Stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, allows low-income people and other disadvantaged groups to buy fresh food at farmers markets. (The city of Madison has its own food council and strategy as well.)

SNAP is called the FoodShare program in Wisconsin. The average household benefit was $258 in May. Nearly 700,000 people qualified for assistance. Participants receive an ATM-like card which is swiped at the market for “market dollars” that can be spent with vendors. Non-food and food-cart items are not eligible.

The good news is the Community Action Coalition’s “Double Dollars” program, which provides FoodShare shoppers with a dollar-for-dollar match up to $25 per day at most Madison farmers markets. It’s a good deal.

The bad news is that Wisconsin lags in FoodShare technology. Some states cover the costs of individual scanners for vendors, but not the Badger state. This has necessitated a complicated recording system that costs the Dane County Farmers’ Market, for example, more than $25,000 a year in administrative expenses. The city and the county cover part of the cost, but market manager Jamie Bugel says she would love it if a new funder stepped forward to cover the balance.

— ME