Newly relocated Madison attraction is an economic boost for growers
Saddled up to the bar, accompanied by a large woven basket on wheels that she lovingly refers to as her “market husband” because it “doesn’t complain and carries all my groceries,” Madison East Side resident Cheri Yearous sips a Bloody Mary before heading back out to finish her shopping.
So far, her “husband” is carrying a gallon of apple cider and honey. When the Bloody Mary is gone, she will go back to the vendors in search of root vegetables, cheese and hearty spinach, or “something that can stand up to kale when you cook it,” she said.
Yearous has been attending the Dane County Farmers’ Market for as long as she can remember. It’s where she does her weekly grocery shopping.
“The market is my church. It is what I do every Saturday,” Yearous said. “It lifts me up. It is where my people are.”
This year, her church has grown substantially.
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is the country’s largest produce-only market with some 265 vendors and crowds of roughly 20,000 weekly. Located around the Capitol Square in downtown Madison in spring, summer and fall, it is a big draw for locals and tourists alike. Locals joke that market newbies quickly stand out for trying to walk clockwise among the sea of seasoned shoppers.
Every winter since the early 1990’s, this massive market morphs into a small version of itself and heads indoors. First it spent a few weeks at Monona Terrace, then it was based at the Madison Senior Center from January through April. This year, it has found a new winter home at the recently renovated Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s East Side.
The change is proving a boon for farmers.
The weekly Saturday winter market opened the doors at its new location on Jan. 4. Roughly 45 farmers set up shop and 4,000 people attended, an upgrade from the 20 to 25 vendors the Senior Center could accommodate and the roughly 500 people who attended.
On each subsequent Saturday, attendance is holding steady around 2,000, said Sarah Elliott, the market’s manager.
“Our fundamental goal is really to ensure that small family farms remain economically viable and they need customers to do that, especially in the off season,” Elliott said. “So having this lovely, cheerful crowd come is really important to them being able to stay in business and continue to be small family farms.”
Leroy and Cindy Fricke own Cherokee Bison Farms near Colby, a roughly 160-mile drive to Madison. Leroy says he has been raising American bison since 1989. He sells New York stripes, top sirloin, stew cubes, bison bacon, jerky and maple syrup. His top sellers are the bison burger patties and bison sausage.
Since the switch from the Senior Center, he said his sales have been up 25 percent, “and that is a conservative estimate.”
“It is still early in the season but it is looking very promising,” Fricke said. “It is a different crowd, younger people, more families.”
A few rows over from Fricke’s booth, Kim Jakubowski with Westridge Farms near Blue River, has set up her booth. She is selling certified organic, grass-fed beef, eggs, yellow and red storage onions, red Russian kale microgreens, arugula, grass-fed beef and eggs.
She said the winter market at the Senior Center felt strong when she first started selling there five or six years ago, but it seemed to slowly decline over the years. She said they were hoping for a new venue and learned over the summer about Garver Feed Mill.
She decided to keep her greenhouse up and running this winter to grow microgreens for the anticipated larger crowds.
“Our sales have definitely been up,” she said.
As a produce-only market, customers can find everything from Asian greens, garlic, lettuce, beets, sweet potatoes, leeks, potatoes, parsnips, carrots and apples, to meats and cheeses and specialty goods such as popcorn, sunflower oil, fermented items, hot sauces, pestos and vinaigrettes.
Unlike other farmers’ markets, there are no craft items, food carts or pre-made meals to purchase. During the summer months on Capitol Square, vendors set up across the street from the farmers’ market and sell these items, but those vendors are run through the city of Madison and are not a part of the market.
Because the winter market shares space with other businesses, including Ian’s Pizza and Ledger Coffee, shoppers still have options to purchase food, alcoholic beverages and coffee.
Three-year-old Piper Anderson was nibbling on an apple while her dad, Mitch Anderson, was eyeing the array of Hook’s Cheese.
The award-winning, artisan cheese is some of his family’s favorite. Anderson had blocks of 2-year-old cheddar, 3-year-old cheddar and pesto Jack cheese in his hands. He said he was probably going to buy some cheese curds and baby swiss, too.
“Hook’s Cheese is the best,” he said.
Elliott added the slower pace of the winter market is also a great way for customers to develop relationships with the farmers.
“You are not walking around the Capitol Square with thousands of other people,” Elliott said. “You can take time to get to know the farmers, to ask them questions about their production or where they are from. Once you cultivate those relationships, chances are you are going to continue to shop with them again in the future.”
Those relationships give shoppers a sense of community, which is why Yearous said she keeps coming back.
The winter market will be held from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday through April 4. It will then return to the Capitol Square from April 11 through Nov. 7.