The Dane County Farmers’ Market has gained notoriety for being the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States. Each Saturday, nearly 100 vendors line Capitol Square to sell their goods -- from cauliflower to cheese curds -- all of which are grown, raised, and produced in Wisconsin by the person behind the stand.
Since its inception nearly 50 years ago in 1972, the market’s mission has been to unite urban and rural cultures and allow people to connect with their food on a different level than they could by purchasing it from anywhere else.
“The market supports small farmers who grow food in an environmentally-thoughtful way and also supports our local community,” said Market Manager Jamie Bugel. “The market is an incredible resource for a city of our size, and it’s amazing that we can support one as large as this. The fact that it’s producer-only really shows the amount of wealth we have agriculturally in Wisconsin, and that it’s a viable economic outlet for farmers who want to sell in an alternative market.”
COVID-19 had temporarily shifted operations from downtown Madison on Wednesdays and Saturdays to pre-order pickups and later an outdoor market at the Alliant Energy Center. Bugel said the return to its usual spots this summer has been well received.
“The transition was pretty hectic, but I think all of our vendors are really happy to be back on the Square and seeing their customers again,” Bugel said. “The hybrid method worked great for keeping people safe during the height of the pandemic, especially because there was pent up demand for fresh produce and meat. But once more people were vaccinated and restrictions eased, we restarted the normal shopping experience and saw pre-order sales drop.”
Bugel has noticed that the Saturday outdoor market crowd is somewhat different from the pre-order pickup crowd. Whereas some people had their families along in the car to make a quick stop at the Alliant for their weekly grocery shopping, people who visit the Square tend to take their time browsing the vendors and nearby arts and crafts and food carts managed through the City of Madison.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that it created more connections between customers and some vendors through the pre-order process. “Returning customers have been reaching out to vendors directly to work out a pick-up at their farm, for example,” Bugel said. While the majority of vendors live about an hour away from Madison, several make long trips from throughout the state, including as far away as Ashland.
DCFM is a non-stock, not-for-profit organization led by a 9-member Board made up of current members. Each vendor is a paying member of DCFM, and membership is capped at around 250. The DCFM typically has a two-year waitlist for vendors because of how popular the markets are, but because of about 30 vendors leaving since 2019 (mostly because they were retiring), the waitlist has dropped to about one year.
“Good nutrition is important for all of us, regardless of age, income level, or circumstance,” according to the DCFM website. That’s why market vendors also accept payments from FoodShare (Wisconsin’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants using their Quest/EBT card for purchasing food-related items. Through Oct. 31st, participants can also take advantage of the Double Dollars program, which matches all SNAP transactions up to $25 per market day (for a total of $50).
The way DCFM is set up does not allow for direct contributions. However, one way to support their goal of investing in today’s youth to “build better farms and farmers for tomorrow” is to make a tax-deductible donation to the DCFM’s Educational Scholarship Fund. This fund (8090802), administered by the Madison Community Foundation, provides grants to students interested in pursuing a career in agriculture. The application deadline is typically in February.
Another way to support DCFM is by volunteering at one of three 2-hour shifts at the information booth on Saturdays. And if you’re looking for a unique gift idea that supports local producers, you can also purchase gift certificates that can be used at any of the Dane County Farmers’ Market locations.
Of course, Dane County is also home to more than a dozen of other farmers' markets, each with their own style, selection, and schedule. Check out this map to find a market near you every day of the week!