A Beet Reporter Visits the Country’s Best Farmer’s Market in Madison

July 22, 2010 at 10:30 am

Editor’s Note: Local Beet Reporter Melissa Owens did not call the Dane County Farmer’s Market the country’s best.  Your Editor at Large did.  Melissa just noted that Saveur Magazine listed the Madison as one of the 5 most prominent markets in the country ( and top 30 in the world).  Of course, Mr. Editor has not visited enough farmer’s markets around the USA to really state which is the best.  So, we admit our label is flawed.  Still, we love the Madison market; its size, its breadth, and especially its locavore treats.  Can we say it is the best place to get farmstead cheese in the USA?  Note also, in addition to myself and Melissa, Beet Reporter Peg Wolfe is a big fan of the Dane County Market, and she even got a nice shout out in the market’s newsletter.

The biggest perk in having a seasonal camping site in south-central Wisconsin is that on many weekends in the summer I am a mere 20 minutes away from Madison, home of the Dane County Farmers Market.  If you’ve never been, the June/July 2010 issue of Saveur Magazine adds one more reason to head out on I90:  the market is listed as one of the 5 most prominent markets in the country, and 30 in the world. 
The Dane County market is one of, if not the largest producer’s only market in the country.  Rules are strict regarding products sold; not only must the vendors control most of the production chain of their products, but everything must also be grown/produced within the state of Wisconsin.  Nonetheless, some 150 vendors line the capital square of Madison on Saturday mornings, and the waiting list for new vendors to the market is years long.  Make no mistake – this is a large market, with large crowds to go along with it.  But there is also an intimate side to the market; with that much competition, the farmers know that it is in their best interest to cultivate and maintain a relationship with their customers.  Chatting with a farmer over a sample of their bacon is a great way to buy food.
Right now, the variety of products available is incredible, and it will remain that way through the growing season.  Last weekend I still saw rhubarb and a few strawberries, while raspberries, apricots and cherries were plentiful, and apples and blueberries were beginning to appear.  Sweet corn is in, along with a greater variety of heirloom tomatoes and new potatoes.  Items that you expect to find, such as green beans and cucumbers, sit along side less common Chinese cooking greens, daikon radishes, purslane and borage.  Remember when you go that “in-season” is limited by market rules to what is actually in season in Wisconsin.  While it’s common now to see peaches from Michigan or southern Illinois at Chicago area farmers markets, you won’t find those at Dane County.  [Ed. I do not think you will ever find peaches grown in Wisconsin.]
Other items that shouldn’t be missed:

  • The various cheese vendors, offering everything from made-that-morning cheese curds, to ultra-fresh goat cheese, to well aged hard cheeses.  Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy was also featured in the Saveur issue mentioned above.  I first fell in love with his aged Gouda several years ago, and it remains an all-time favorite of mine. 
  • Hard to find specialty meats – looking for a source for venison or emu?  Both meats are sold here.  Dried beef, ring bologna, smoked and fresh trout, bison steaks, summer sausages and beef jerky, and about a bazillion varieties of brats are all easy to find. 
  • Maple syrup at less than half the price of your local grocery store.  Since I use maple syrup regularly as a sweetener, I purchase a huge jug in the fall to last the winter – syrup freezes well for long term storage. 
  • The wide variety of baked goods:  pies from Amish vendors, gooey cinnamon rolls, fry cakes, scones and cheesecake to name a few.
  • And last but certainly not least: hot and spicy cheese bread.  Is there anything better than molten cheese encased in slightly sweet bread studded with chili flakes?  I think not.  There is no way to miss this bread as two competing vendors loudly sell it on opposite ends of the square.  Do what the regulars do: grab a loaf straightaway and eat as you walk through the market. [Ed. OMG yes!]

The same general market tips apply.  I go very early in the morning to avoid the crowds (later in the morning, the walking pace is reduced to a slow shuffle during the busiest weeks), but late shoppers will find some good bargains.  Even early in the morning, it can take me an hour to walk the entire market – I pull a small roller cooler so that I don’t have to worry about my meat purchases defrosting.  There are many good cafes and restaurants and a few food carts surrounding the square; make it a day trip by bringing a cooler to store your purchases and have a leisurely lunch out.  Or, bring a blanket and have a picnic on the capital lawn.  The lunch possibilities then are endless!

Dane County Farmers Market

2010 Saturday Outdoor Market Schedule

April 17, 2010 – November 6, 2010

Hours: 6:00 am to 2:00 pm

Downtown Madison on the Capitol Square



  1. Melissa Owens says:

    Interestingly enough, the email update I received this morning from the market *does* say that Door County Fruit Markets will have peaches in a week or two. I’m making a note to visit them next time I’m up there – wonder if I’ve just missed the peaches the last couple of years, or if they are a new crop for them…

    • Rob Gardner says:

      mmmm I guess so, but I know that it is hard to even grow peaches in IL; they can be grown in SW Michigan because the lake keeps the trees a bit warmer in the winter. All the way in Wisconsin, I guess I’m just very surprised.

      Anyways, your report makes me want to hit Madison soon. And you talk about “in-season”, but one of the amazing things about this market is that it’s always “in-season” The market will be filled with stuff in April and in November, and that’s about the best reason I think it the best market.

  2. Melissa Owens says:

    It surprises me, too. Must be an extremely hardy variety. Then again, I regularly drink a wine made from grapes grown north of Madison along the Wisconsin River. WI isn’t the first place I think of when considering vineyards!

    And yes, I am always amazed at what appears at the market on those first, cold April Saturdays. But the arugula and watercress that I nearly weep over then is nowhere to be found now. Seasonality at Dane County is most evident in the fruit cycles, although when the sweet corn stands show up for the first time? THAT is when a close parking space is key – carrying all those ears gets heavy!

  3. Peg Wolfe says:

    Melissa –
    Thanks for the mention! The prominent mention of the DCFM in the current issue of Saveur came as a complete surprise to Bill Lubing, the gentleman who puts together its wonderful e-newsletter every week (and takes its beautiful photos, as well). Go figure.

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