A Cultural Phenomenon
A farmers’ market is a place where local vendors come together to offer a product to the residents of that city. Although most cities in the Upper Midwest have farmers’ markets in their home towns or in the nearby towns, none even come close to the Dane County Farmers’ Market. In fact, the “Dane County Farmers' Market is rated as one of the two best markets in the entire country” (City of Madison Website). The Farmers’ Market hosts over four hundred vendors and twenty thousand customers every week. One of Madison’s three farmers’ markets runs throughout most of the year. However, it is the market that takes place around the State Capital building that is the Farmers’ Market. Starting the last Saturday in April and lasting until the first Saturday of November, the Dane County Farmers’ Market opens by six in the morning and stays until two in the afternoon. The vendors find the work hard, but rewarding and the customers believe the Market to be one of Madison’s greatest treasures. Situated on the isthmus around the heart of Madison, the Farmers’ Market is the perfect Saturday event. People come from miles and miles away to experience the market, both as vendors and as customers. The Dane County Farmers’ Market is a cultural event that creates a community among the vendors as well as between the city of Madison and its inhabitants.
Farmers’ Markets first started as a way for country farmers to
sell their produce to the inhabitants of the nearby towns. This is a tradition
that started in Europe and was continued by the immigrants who came to
The Dane County Farmers’ Market became the official market of the city of Madison. The Farmers’ Market first opened its stands on September 30, 1972 after two years of getting legislation passed, getting permits in order, and attracting vendors. It was not yet at the Capital, but was instead on Monona Avenue (now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard). That first Saturday, it had only managed to attract eleven vendors. The number of people who wanted to purchase their goods overwhelmed these eleven vendors. The positive response to this first market brought an increasing numbers of farmers and the very next week over eighty vendors became involved with the Market, filling up Monona Avenue and moving to Capitol Square and staying there (Carpenter). As the Farmers’ Market grew in popularity it became more necessary to control who was able to sell their goods at the market. So, in 1974, in an attempt to that organize the vendors, the Market manager issued season passes to the vendors and the Markets first rule, that all products must be made or grown within the Wisconsin state borders, was instated (City of Madison website). From that first market in 1972 to today, 31 years later, the Farmers’ Market has grown to become a phenomenon and a community. It now attracts over 400 vendors and 20,000 customers a week. Furthermore, what is sold has expanded from just produce to flowers, potted herbs, food products, bakery goods, clothing, services and more (Ted Ballweg Interview).
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is important to the recreational life of Madison and is therefore significant to our understanding of Madison’s folk life. Although a farmers’ market is not distinctive to the Upper Midwest region, the Dane County Farmers’ Market does create a sense of community in two separate ways, within the vendors and between the Market and Madison.
First of all, the vendors who sell their goods at the Market today have created a community amongst themselves. Ted Ballweg operates a chili pepper products stand at the Market and has been there for eighteen years. He started coming to the market because he was a gardener who needed an outlet. He continues to come every year since 1985 because he has developed a profitable niche and has come to like the cultural community and lifestyle he gets from the Market. For him, as well as for many other vendors, the Market has become a cultural thing. It is a place where they can get together to swap ideas and trade notes on how to grow different produce or how to organically deal with a certain pesky insect. Because of this, a lot of personal friendships have been made at the Market (Ted Ballweg Interview).
Another vendor, Steven Pivars has been at the Market for twenty-seven years, almost from its inception selling seasonal certified organic produce. In 1976 he first came to the Farmers’ Market as a way to sell what he and his family grows without any prior commitments with a grocery store. He feels that this gives him the freedom to grow what he would like to and also takes the pressure off if a certain product did not do as well as expected. When he first began selling his produce, the Market accounted for all of his business. Now, it only accounts for fifteen percent, yet he still comes every Saturday that the Market is open because he believes that the Farmers’ Market is a way to get off the farm and to socialize with fellow farmers and sellers, and also with the customers who visit his booth. He finds the Market exciting, yet routinized, as anything would be after twenty-seven years (Steven Pivars interview).
Barb Birkinbine has only been at the market for five years, yet she still feels the Market has become integral in her life. She sells potted herbs from April until the end of June when she closes up shop for the season. She came to the Dane County Farmers’ Market because she had heard that it was a good market and has stayed because she has found this to be very true. The Farmers’ Market is a good business opportunity for her. In fact, she has such success here and because it is such a wonderful market, it has kept her from doing multiple markets throughout the week. Furthermore, she has come to value the clientele and the support of the other vendors (Barb Birkinbine interview).
These vendors all started the Market as a business venture and they have stayed on because the business is good and the community is invaluable. Not only do the vendors become friends and trade advice, they also form a barter community, exchanging what they have for what they do not grow and need as “several pounds of beets replace a loaf of bread; onions trade places with apples” (Carpenter 7). The vendors rely on each other. They have created a community around the four streets the encircle Madison’s state capital that depends on shared experiences, the trade of information, and a barter system for their products.
The second form of community that is created with the Farmers’ Market is one between the customers and the Market itself. In this sense, the Market is a cultural affair that encompasses all of the separate vendors and melds them into one event under the heading of the Farmers’ Market. The customers who go to the Market are not often in the search of one vendor; instead they go for the experience the Farmers’ Market gives them.
I have sat on the grass of the Capital building and just watched the people mill about stopping whenever something strikes their fancy. Of course, some have specific lists of groceries they need to pick up and it seems even more have some sort of mental list, the majority are there just to walk around and look at the stands and just buy whatever they see that they like. One interesting note about the people who walk around the Square is that they all walk one direction, “counterclockwise around the Square [even though] there are no one-way signs to stop anyone from walking otherwise… a sense of unity and an urge for self-preservation could account for the custom” (Carpenter 8-9). All of the customers talk amongst themselves and there is a feeling of a great big family reunion.
The customers also use the food as a way to connect culturally with others in their community. You can hear them trading recipes and cooking tips and talking family traditions at the booths. Mary Carpenter, author of The Dane County Farmers’ Market: a Personal History, says, “the Market is a giant cooking show” (12). What she means by this is that at every booth information is getting passed between the vendors and the customers and even between the customers themselves. This information includes how long to cook asparagus or what herbs taste best with chicken or how to use parsnips, the easiest way to pare a head of lettuce, what organic means, which vegetables go bad fast, how to prolong the life of cut flowers, the list goes on and on. Customers use the Market as a forum to bounce cooking ideas off of each other or gain invaluable cooking information. The Dane County Farmer’s Market has become a recreational activity for the seasoned chefs and for the newbies who still burn their instant macaroni and cheese. What is important is that there is a community between all of the customers and the market because they share a passion.
Many customers find the Farmers’ Market invaluable not only for the opportunity to buy fresh produce and goods, but for what the Market does for Madison as a city. Paula Kay Phillips recently moved to Madison and has volunteered for the information booth at the Farmers’ Market for about a year now. She says that she volunteers as a way to make new friends and as a way to get to know Madison. She gets to meet a lot of the unseasoned customers and helps them find their way around the Market and around Madison. Paula Kay feels that the Farmers’ Market is essential to Madison’s culture and identity because it keeps brings so many people to the area, which keeps the downtown alive, vibrant, and most importantly safe which impacts the downtown area even when the Market is not in session (Phillips interview). Bringing in so many people from outside of Madison helps the economic standing of the city. Not only does it benefit the growers and sellers, by removing the intermediary, but also it benefits the city and has a huge economic impact on the surrounding businesses and hotels (Ballweg Interview). Furthermore, the Market is one of the reasons that Madison was rated the “Best Place to Live” by Money magazine (Carpenter xiv). This rating helps to bring new people to Madison, to live or visit, which again helps Madison’s economics. The customers who shop at the Market can see the economic advantage to the city and that is why so many people will forgo the ease of buying produce and other products that are available at the Market from their excursion to the grocery store. They can recognize that not only does the Market involve them in a distinct community, but it also strengthens the community within which they live.
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is a cultural phenomenon in Madison, and indeed within Wisconsin. It is important to look at when thinking about the recreational and even occupational folklore of Madison, because it creates many different levels of community within the city, only two of which have I even scratched the surface. Some things that deserve further investigation are the relationship between the Farmers’ Market and the area chefs and the relationship between the customers and what is successful at the Market. The society that the Dane County Farmers’ Market creates is very deep because the Farmers’ Market has become so central to the culture and identity of the city. This account has hardly made a dent in the magnitude of the Farmers’ Market. If you would like a more in depth look at the Farmers’ Market, I highly suggest Mary Carpenter’s historical overview.
Ballweg, Ted. Personal Interview. 10 May 2003.
Birkinbine, Barb. Personal Interview. 10 May 2003.
Carpenter, Mary. The Dane County Farmers’ Market: a Personal History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
Dane County Farmers’ Market: on the Square. 2002. City of Madison, Wisconsin. 26 April 2003. <http://www.madfarmmkt.org/>
Pivars, Steven. Personal Interview. 10 May 2003.
Phillips, Paula Kay. Personal Interview. 10 May 2003.