In the upper Midwest, spring is finally pushing itself up from the brown ground. In Madison, Wis., the season is marked by the mid-April return of the Dane County Farmers Market. The DCFM, running since 1972, is widely considered the largest producer-only farmers market in the country.
For some, the DCFM is a religious pilgrimage: Many ritually circumambulate the downtown Capitol Square on Saturday morning. The single-minded adeptly maneuver through the crowds to reach a favored vendor, but others meander meditatively. All praise and appraise the diverse herbs, vegetables, fruits, meat and local products offered directly from their growers and creators.
At the peak of summer and fall seasons, 150 vendors are hawking to 20,000 or more shoppers. On Saturdays that overlap with a University of Wisconson Badgers football game, the capital is a brilliant sea of undulating red. The market is so brimming with shoppers that conversations with farmers and friends are just too quick.
A warm market in winter
But during the cold Midwest months, the winter market — though one-fifth the size — generates plenty of warmth, community and intimacy. Between January and April, the Dane County market moves indoors, to the cafeteria of the Madison Senior Center.
“The winter market allows vendors to sell their products all year round, features local produce in the breakfast, and teaches the community how to use the products in the form of recipes from Bill Lubing’s weekly newsletter,” emphasizes Larry Johnson, the DCFM manager. “It also allows me to sleep a little later than in the summer months,” he added.
Lubing will miss his sleep, and the market community will miss the winters-only locavore brunch — a showcase for farmers produce and products prepared by local chefs and volunteers. The last one will be April 10.
On a recent Saturday, by 8:15 a.m., the line already had about 25 parents, children, groups and singles all patiently waiting despite the rainy and cold day to buy their breakfast ticket. Another 30 or so were shopping. (The colder, snowier and rainier the weather, it seems, the more likely the indoor market is packed.) To stave off the chill and the pangs of hunger, market-goers in line are served coffee (fair-trade, of course) and offered a taste of Cabibo’s fresh panettone from the baker himself.
A volunteer brunch
That morning, the breakfast plate overflowed with a stuffed burrito (choice of pork and emu chorizo or pickled onions with scrambled eggs and cheese); mixed greens salad lightly dressed with a lemon pesto vinaigrette; a crunchy and savory rice and bean hash brown; Oaxacan chocolate mini butter croissant; a choice of cranberry or fresh local apple cider; and unlimited coffee.
Chef Tory Miller from Cafe Soleil and L’Etoile Restaurant (Sante magazine’s “Best Sustainable Restaurant in the Midwest” 2007 and a Saveur 100 selection in 2008) manned the kitchen this particular week. Judy Hageman of Snug Haven Farm, “The Taste of the Market” Breakfast Coordinator, gets help from a slew of dedicated kitchen volunteers, including students from Sherman Middle School, Ben Hunter of the Underground Food Collective, and the Goodman Ironworks Cafe. This is how it is each week; under the guidance of a local chef, nonprofits or university groups collaborate with farmers, organize and prepare the brunch.
“I like the community and the breakfast,” says Susan Skubal, a Wisconsin native who frequents the winter market. “I can share food, talk about why we are at the market and support small farmers.” Sylvan Farms pasture-raised beef and pork, and Snug Haven’s hoop house winter spinach are Susan’s favorites. Spinach, a cool weather crop, sweetens with the cold. “Snug Haven’s spinach rules!” she says, “I just can’t eat summer spinach anymore.”
She won’t be the only one craving a bit of the winter market, even during the glories of summer. “Eating does not have to be an anonymous act, in fact it is a social act intimately connected to our farmers, the land and the community,” says Miriam Grunes. She is the executive director of REAP, an organization that tracks all the farmers markets and develops farm-to-school programs. “The winter market feels like a weekly can’t-miss event,” she adds. “It’s basically a lively summer front porch, in the winter time.”
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.
Photos, from top:
Friends of the Dane County Farmers Market Fair Trade Coffee. Credit: Sarah Khan
Girls at the winter indoor market in March.
Credit: Sarah Khan
The breakfast burrito brunch served up at the indoor DCFM by chef Tory Miller and volunteers. Credit: Sarah Khan