Dane County Farmers Market now pick-up only
Ted Ballweg, owner of Savory Accents, delivers a bag of his products to a customer at the Dane County Farmers' Market. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Growers, customers, distributors all taking precautions to keep the food chain active and healthy

The Dane County Farmers’ Market prides itself on personal connections between farmers and customers, but the distancing required to control the coronavirus is scrambling those relationships.

The market, the country’s largest producer-only market, closed down earlier this month after being a non-stop Madison institution since 1972. It reopened the week of March 23 with a trial of a limited “pop-ups” featuring eight vendors on Tuesday and a different eight on Thursday. The week of March 30 it will be held on Wednesday.

The first day coincided with Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order closing all non-essential businesses. But the market is considered essential, in the same category as grocery stores, says manager Sarah Elliot. 

She’s been working with local and state health authorities to make the transfer of food as safe as possible. Customers order and pay ahead of time, then pull into the lot at Garver Feed Mill at a designated time, and vendors run their pre-ordered produce to the car.

On the first day, patrons could order honey from the Bee Charmer, sheep’s milk feta from Capri Cheese, and mixed greens from Don’s Produce, among others. 

“People still need to eat and our producers need to keep their businesses afloat,’’ Elliot said. “What better time to have your local farmer close?”

People wait in their cars for delivers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Still, late winter is the slowest time for local Wisconsin produce. At its peak in late summer, about 160 vendors ring the eight blocks of Madison’s Capitol Square, serving thousands of customers. Elliot says the national research she’s done on the pop-markets involve much smaller numbers of farmers and customers.

“Clearly, there’s a million moving pieces and we’re not sure we’d be able to implement this at a larger scale,’’ she said.

Some customers don’t want to leave home at all during the pandemic, she said, and so other models are springing up to serve them.

Market vendor Bill Warner, who runs the Snug Haven farm near Belleville, already has dozens of customers who get weekly deliveries of his cold-sweetened spinach. He added products from fellow market farmers, including eggs from Pecatonica Valley Farm, and mushrooms from the Fungi Farmer. 

There was so much demand for delivered vegetables Warner had to cap his customers at 200 a week. Those customers will pick up their produce at about ten “one-touch” pick-up locations. He heard from a 300-unit condo building in Madison that would like vegetable deliveries, but he doesn’t have the staff to do that himself.

“The demand is there, and even though farmers are fiercely independent, I think they’re going to have to get together in groups of three or four” to set up customer delivery,” he said. “I hope people will support the other farmers, they’re our friends.”

Ian Adcock waits for a delivery of vegetables from Driftless Organics at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Some local food businesses that have been forced to shut down have added farmer produce to their own deliveries.

Anna Landmark had to shutter the Landmark Creamery store in Paoli, which she runs with partner Anna Thomas Bates, because of coronavirus. At the same time, the restaurants that bought Landmark’s artisan cheese also closed.

“We lost our storefront, and then when the restaurants closed, we lost our commercial accounts,’’ Landmark said. The creamery decided to add order pickup in Paoli and delivery in Dane and Green counties on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They added micro greens from Garden to Be, beef from Highland Springs farm, chocolates from Sjolinds in Mount Horeb, and more.

“Right now it’s sustainable,’’ Landmark says, of the deliveries, which each must include an order of cheese.

Up the road in Mount Horeb, Brix Cider also turned to community food delivery and order pick-up after it was forced to close its public ciderhouse. Owner Marie Raboin says the cidery has added produce from Squashington Farm, meat from Seven Seeds Farm, and products from other vendors who would normally supply the restaurant.

“We went from 35 (customers) the first week to 125 this week,’’ she says. “We have a direct shipping license but right now we’re not selling as much cider as I’d like. I hope people will buy more cider because that’s what helps us stay afloat.”

Back at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Sarah Elliot says she thinks the pandemic may bring about permanent changes in the way some people get their local foods.

“It’s an interesting conundrum,’’ she said. “More home delivery may become a reality. In a kind of warped way, the situation is forcing us to develop those capabilities.”