Every Saturday morning, from April to November, the heart of downtown Madison, Wisconsin, undergoes a transformation.
Even before the sun’s first light hits the dome of our beautiful Capitol building, the surrounding Square comes to life. Vans and trucks pull up curbside, engines purr to a stop, doors slam, hatches open. There is the scraping of table legs against cement and canopies in all colors begin popping up along the outer edge of the Square. At each stand, empty spaces slowly but steadily fill up with stacks of vegetables, trays of pastry, rows of colorful jars, blocks of cheese, flats of flowers, and regiments of potted plants. It is Saturday morning, and the vendors of the Dane County Farmers’ Market have arrived.
The Dane County Farmers’ Market (DCFM, for short) is, reportedly, the largest producer-only market in the United States. It’s a biweekly occasion, held Saturdays and Wednesdays, but Saturday is the big one. Around 300 vendors participate every year; 160 or so every Saturday. Since its inception in 1972, our market requires that all the vegetables, flowers, meats, cheese and specialty products be both produced in Wisconsin and sold at market by their producers. Resellers need not apply. Quality, along with origin, is also important. The average wait time before producers are invited to sell at DCFM is five years. These guiding principles are very much in line with ours at Fair Indigo: to support small producers (local where possible) while curating a compelling selection of high quality products.
Ethos aside, you know what we most love about our market? It’s just a really fun place to spend part of your Saturday. Starting around 6:00 a.m., the Square begins to slowly fill up with Madison residents and visitors. We tote bags and backpacks, we sip on coffee, we push strollers with children wearing crumbs of today’s must-have scone or donut around their mouths. We are showered and unshowered, wearing heels or pajama pants, in chattering groups or alone with our thoughts. We come when the sun shines and when it rains. We have lists or we impulse buy (often a little of both). We carry wallets fat with cash or strategize how to spend our handful of food assistance vouchers.
We meet up with friends, take artistic pictures of kohlrabi, sit on the Capitol lawn to eat cheese curds and soak up the sun and people watch. We sometimes spend more than we planned, but feel only passing remorse about it because everything we take home is just so beautiful or delicious or both. And we walk counter-clockwise around the Square. Always counter-clockwise. Why? Well, that’s just how it’s done.
And then, by 2:00 p.m., our market, this community spectacle that’s different every week, yet so familiar and consistent, comes to a close. The crowds thin until all that’s left are the oversleepers, the extended brunchers, the bargain hunters and those for whom the market wasn’t their primary objective, anyway. The vendors continue selling, happily but hastily, up until the moment they load the last bit of their wares and supplies back into their vehicles and head back to their homes and farms. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable to contend that everyone’s day ends a bit richer than it started.
This post guest authored by Caroline Sober-James, friend of Fair Indigo, fan of the Dane County Farmer’s Market and regular worker at the Harmony Valley Farm market stand.