Once a hippie haven, Madison has emerged as one of the most livable cities in America; part and parcel of its metamorphosis has been this farmers’ market, running full blower since 1972 when then-Mayor Bill Dyke sought a way to bridge city and country. The market circles the Capitol building, which sits in the middle of an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona, right at the head of energetic State Street, which runs into the University of Wisconsin several blocks away.
Northern European immigrants brought dairy farming to this short-growing-season state; their heritage plays out in a seemingly endless variety of cheeses. And there’s a bounty of greens from this glaciated, gently rolling land, a celebration of summer, short as it is. With its stated mission of providing “an opportunity for farmers and people from urban communities to deal directly with each other,” its location in one of the country’s richest agricultural regions, and its all-out community feel, the Dane County Farmers’ Market tops our list.
Counterclockwise, everyone! Scandinavian efficiency sets in on Saturday morning as everyone walks in the same direction. Parents, kids, singles, blended families, same-sex couples—here’s the flow that makes Madison so enviable. No matter the crowds, the vendors are cool and collected, from scraggly-bearded hippies to nouveau farmers fresh from corporate jobs.
Our Favorite Vendors
Quentin and Mary Carpenter have made a quarter-century commitment to farming, hand-picking and washing the pesticide- and herbicide-free vegetables (including 35 varieties of tomatoes) they grow on their Fort Atkinson farm. And for sheer quirkiness, the Dernbachs of Golden Dreams Ostrich Farm have the right, wry sense of humor that comes from working with these gawky birds for over 10 years. “We waited four years to even get a spot at the market,” says Donna, who raises the birds along with her husband, Joe, and four sons. “We never realized until then what a great place it is.”
Build lunch or dinner around sorrel, black radishes and sunchokes from Harmony Valley Farm. Set in a peaceful, secluded valley by the Mississippi River on the state’s western rim, the farm is not only all-organic but manages its land to have minimal impact on local birds and wildlife. Wisconsin farmland has proven perfect for potatoes: cold and damp, producing some of the nation’s best. The perfect side to dinner on the grill are the varietal spuds from Butter Mountain Potatoes. Finish off your meal with dairy-state perfection from wind- and solar-powered Bleu Mont Dairy. Swiss artisan Willi Lehner taught his son to age cheeses on cedar planks in a straw-bale cave; their bandaged Cheddar is worth stopping that counterclockwise flow for. And for sustenance as you make your way around the market, nab some shelled hickory nuts from Biersach Hickory Nut Heaven. Hickory trees once covered the state; they now represent a bit of Wisconsin nostalgia.
In early June, Cows on the Concourse, a veritable dairy farm on the Capitol lawn, celebrates the state’s farm heritage. A few weeks later, Paddle and Portage is a true bit of Madison whimsy as people haul their canoes right through the market in their race across the lakes.
Sat., 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., on the Capitol Square; Wed., 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. For winter hours and locations, check the website, dcfm.org.