The ultimate guide to Madison farmers’ markets

Meet us at the market this season
farmers market intersection of state and capitol square

Even before the warm summer sun begins to rise above Wisconsin’s state Capitol building, hundreds of multicolored tents slowly pop up along the surrounding sidewalks. Vendors move quickly in eager anticipation of a busy Saturday morning. Their displays are filled with bright green vegetables, liquid gold honeys, sweet-smelling treats, fragrant flowers and perfectly ripened tomatoes.

At 6:15 a.m., local chefs are often the first to show, scooping up produce and specialty items that will make their way to their menus in the coming days. By the time the sun peaks above the Capitol’s dome, the Square’s walkways fill with weekenders picking up items that define Wisconsin’s bounty – tart cranberries, Door County cherries and, of course, bags of fresh squeaky cheese curds.

There’s a certain magic about the Dane County Farmers’ Market. It has become a Saturday morning tradition for many Madisonians, who browse this gorgeous show-and-tell of Wisconsin’s agricultural and artisan treasures.

By 9 a.m., the crowd slowly swells as the Square comes alive with tourists, college students, families and food seekers. Patrons swarm tables, filling every edge of the sidewalk while trying to check off their grocery lists and find hidden gems.

By the end of the market around 2 p.m., quiet returns as if the market had never convened there — until next Saturday, that is.

But the Dane County Farmers’ Market isn’t the Madison area’s only impressive display of fresh produce and handcrafted items. You can get face-to-face with your farmers at dozens of markets held every day of the week in the Madison area and surrounding counties. Whether you’re looking to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet or simply want to support Wisconsin farmers, we invite you to check out a local market and experience the local flavor on full display. We’ll meet you there.

Gathering at the Square

With more than 68,500 farms in Wisconsin, agriculture remains a key part of the state’s economy. From bakers to cheesemakers to fruit and vegetable farmers, the local lineup of producers makes it easy to eat locally produced food.

Due to the continued popularity of the locavore movement – an initiative aimed at encouraging people to buy food grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius – more people are becoming interested in supporting local food systems.The ultimate guide to Madison farmers’ markets

Since 1972, Dane County Farmers’ Market has been a destination for tourists and locals alike. What started as a five-farmer market has expanded to a base of more than 270 members (what DCFM calls its vendors). Not only is it the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the U.S., DCFM is constantly ranked as one of the best markets in the country to visit.

On any given Saturday from mid-April to mid-November, about 150 vendor stands surround Capitol Square as part of the DCFM. Thousands of people stop by to buy cheese, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, honey, bread, spices, jams – essentially everything a person could want for fresh, local groceries.

“Farmers in Wisconsin are really amazing, innovative, hardworking folks that are kind of constantly pushing the envelope in terms of what can be grown in Wisconsin and what’s available,” says Sarah Elliott, the DCFM market manager.

Elliott says approximately a third of those around the square have a stall in the same location week to week; the majority of individuals do not have assigned spots.

Even though most vendors move from one spot to another on a weekly basis, Elliott says customers don’t usually notice as long as they’re located in the same section on the same block.

“From a customer point of view, it’s really different to go shopping at a farmers’ market versus shopping at a grocery store,” Elliott says. “You come to the farmers’ market and there’s some ingredients that you’ve never seen, never eaten or never cooked with, but they’re just stacked on a farmer’s table in that big beautiful arrangement and it’s like, how can you pass it by?”

This year 10 new members joined the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Elliott says individuals spend two to three years on the waiting list.

Elliott says markets allow farmers and producers to have social interaction with local customers. She says it’s a way to make farming economical while the greater community benefits from locally produced goods.

“You don’t have to go very far to hear about how hard it is to be a farmer right now in Wisconsin and everywhere else across our country,” Elliott says. “[Farmers’ markets] really play a part in making sure that small family farms are still a viable way to make a living here in Wisconsin.”

Venturing Beyond

While the market on the Square is the biggest in the area, dozens of smaller locations also support the food economy while helping to eliminate food deserts and create community spaces. More than 15 are located in Madison, and several others can be found in surrounding counties and suburbs.

The different markets cater to different audiences, says Helen Sarakinos, the executive director of REAP Food Group, a nonprofit aiming to create a just, accessible and sustainable local food system.

“They really serve in a sense as community hubs, not just places to buy food,” Sarakinos says. “They give people the opportunity for face-to-face contact with each other, with their neighbors, and they also give you face time with your farmer.”

Farmers’ markets provide an opportunity to meet the people behind the food, creating relationships that go beyond a transaction, Sarakinos says.

One spot Sarakinos suggests visiting is the Mercadito del Centro, a Wednesday afternoon market at Centro Hispano of Dane County. Mercadito is modeled after markets you’d find in Latin America. Sarakinos says Mercadito introduces the Madison community to Latino farmers and types of vegetables they might not find elsewhere.

“We really miss out if we don’t take a moment to visit those neighborhood farmers’ markets and really get a feel for some of the flavors of our city,” Sarakinos says.

Thomas Olson, the farm manager of Fitchburg’s Eplegaarden, not only participates in DCFM’s Saturday market, but he also participates in the Fitchburg Center Farmers’ Market at the Agora Pavilion. Olson says the Fitchburg market gives him a chance to interact with the community.

“If they had a market every day of the week, I’d try my best to go there in Fitchburg,” Olson says. Eplegaarden, which participates in markets in August through early September before transitioning its focus to its U-pick business around Labor Day, sells up to 25 varieties of apples in retail locations throughout the growing season.

“It’s really important to show that food is something that we all care about,” Olson says. “Whether it’s my stand or anyone else’s stand, having people come is just such a pleasure.”

Sarakinos challenges everyone attending a market to have at least one conversation with a farmer even if it’s simply asking about a certain item.

“Learning a little bit about the human beings who are growing it on the other end of that transaction makes us more sensitive I think as human beings to each other and to the power of local food and what it can do to build our community,” Sarakinos says.

Dane County farmers and producers know how to make the most of Wisconsin’s growing season. This area is home to more than 40 food markets and the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the united states. Meet some of the participants, discover tips and find new local markets to feel like an insider at your next visit. Click one of the links below for more information.

7 ways to shop smarter at farmers’ markets

10 must-buy items from the market

What products are in season: a guide to seasonal goods

Day in the life of a farmers’ market vendor

Support farmers year-round with the Farm Fresh Atlas

Meet the “Best of Madison” farmers’ markets

Madison’s future public market

Download a chart of farmers’ markets in the Greater Madison Area here.