Tag Archives: Farmers Market

The Largest Farmers Market in the USA

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It is the farmers market that ruined me for all other farmers markets. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for several years, I would regularly attend the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Every Saturday morning during the warm season, the entire capital square would be filled with vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, and, of course, because this is Wisconsin, cheese and meat.

Each Saturday, between 9 A.M. and noon, crowds of people pack the sidewalks that surround the capitol square, creating a lively scene. It was enough volume, enough activity, that every other farmer’s market I visited after this one has left me asking “Is this it”?

That is partially because the Dane County Farmers Market is a unique experience in a unique place. It was included as a “must see” in the book 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

The book, however, was published in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. One distinct characteristic of the 21st century is the presence of simultaneous contradictory trends. For example, we have a new generation of people emerging who both spend over nine hours per day in front of screens and prefer face-to-face interactions. Likewise, while obesity rates continue to climb, people are also becoming more health conscious and more aware of the food they consume.

Specifically, with detox diets, and awareness of the amount of waste caused by our food distribution system, more and more people are desiring locally sourced food. This can be seen at grocery stores and even some restaurants, where more and more displays indicate that food was produced on a “local” farm. Farmers markets are expanding everywhere to meet this increasing demand to buy locally produced preservative free produce. Some lists of top farmers markets in the USA published more recently do not even include the Dane County Farmers Market.

The Dane County Farmers Market still certainly represents a unique experience, as it has always been about more than just the vendors.

As far as I can remember, Madison has always been a very political town. On all four corners of the square, booths promoting political causes and local candidates are an expected presence. Along the roads that radiate outward from the Capitol Square, more interesting activity can be found, including live performances, some additional vendors and demonstrations of activities like wood carving, and even an impromptu children’s play area placed in front of the children’s museum.

I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is certainly more interesting than most towns around this size. The college campus guarantees plenty of interesting cultural activities. The pedestrian mall, State Street, that connects the capitol with campus is always active, even if it does have a speed limit that just begs people to break it… on their bicycles.

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And there are the lakes, four of them to be exact, of pretty good size, one of which is directly adjacent to the University.

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The city has two other characteristics that, having visited a lot of different places, feel quite surprising.

One is how strong drinks are mixed here, particularly on State Street. I ordered a make-your-own-bloody mary at one of the many establishments on State Street. Restaurants that offer this beverage typically provide a glass with vodka to mix with the other ingredients at the bloody mary bar. This is the only place where the glass provided to me was filled halfway up! Mixed drinks at other bars are also quite strong compared to the ones in most other cities.

From a now outsider perspective, it is also surprising to see how politically one-sided Madison is. Signs promoting events and groups, conversations around town and even signs in front of local businesses are quite frequently politically charged, way more so than in most other cities and towns. They are all from one side. It is as if those on the other side had been silenced or run out of town. In a State that is quite close to evenly divided politically, it feels strange to be in a place where one side has near 100% dominance of the discussion.

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Sometimes I find it depressingly easy for people who live in cities to forget what region they are in, on a larger scale. Traveling around the country, it often feels like all cities are tying to build the exact same amenities as each other; luxury apartments, shared workspaces, microbreweries, and art galleries. In my current hometown of Denver there is a constant reminder of where we are, the mountains to the West which tower over the skyscrapers of the city. The Midwest does not have that, however, seeing booth after booth selling cheese curds, other agricultural products, and products like venison jerky is as clear of a reminder to any that Madison is part of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest.

The Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market

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What does it mean to have a “healthy community”?  I am encouraged to see more and more people actively consider their life choices, their environment, associations and just put more thought in general to how they spend their time, energy, and money.  This feels like a dramatic shift from, say, ten years ago.  However, embedded in some of the most high profile public improvement related pursuits in the modern era is an unfortunate residual strand of laziness.  After all, we do want something for nothing.

This often manifests itself in buzz phrases that people use to not-so subtly indicate some form of association with a popular present-day initiative.  Perhaps the one that bugs me the most is the term “sustainability”.  In many of its common present-day uses, the definition of this term “sustainability” has been narrowed to only mean sustainability in the environmental sense, short-changing the term of its full definition, and shortchanging discussions of “sustainability” of their full impact.

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Whenever I ride a bicycle to a Farmer’s Market, I feel as if I suddenly become the personification of the term “healthy community”.  It’s the standard image, embedded in every montage that any health or parks department has put together to promote some kind of health/ community initiative in the past six years.  People riding their bikes to buy pesticide-free produce and meat products from local farmers and ranchers.

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And there are a few booths that sell those products, including one with that cow diagram that just always confuses me.  Why are there like 50 types of beef?.  However, most of the booths at this Farmer’s Market are not vendors selling food.  In fact, I saw a somewhat random assortment of products that made me curious as to how one goes about determining what is appropriate for a Farmer’s Market.

And, as is the case with any other Farmer’s Market I have been to, there were plenty of booths where one can get food that is, well, not healthy.

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In Wisconsin, any Farmer’s Market I would attend would have a good number of booths selling cheese curds.  If the country ever breaks up into its 50 states, and Wisconsin becomes its own country, it would probably stock pile cheese as a strategic reserve, much the same way Canada stock piles maple syrup.

I would say a majority of the food vendors at this Farmer’s Market offer food that is not typically considered healthy; including many different varieties of baked goods, food trucks, and a bunch of stands that sell items like tamales and burritos.

Interestingly, several booths at this Farmer’s Market are operated by Local civic organizations advising residents on how to effectively garden and compost.  This gives this Farmer’s Market somewhat of a unique touch, that contributes to the health and sustainability of the community in a different way.

But, the same way being a successful person is about more than simply becoming “goal oriented”, eating well is about more than just buying things that are “organic”, and having a productive work team is about more than just “synergy”, having a healthy community is not just about initiatives like this.  There are a lot of other factors, culturally, near and far, that make this place what it is.

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Regardless of what we are trying to achieve, it takes time, effort and active participation.  We all want something for nothing.  We want to be able to claim some sort of accomplishment, moral validation, status or belonging by claiming association with some positively viewed buzzword, and maybe taking part in a token activity like going to a Farmer’s Market.  But, to really live healthy takes a much bigger commitment.  And there is more to having a “healthy community” than a video montage showing people like me bicycling to Farmer’s Markets.

What we do every day can be healthy, or it can be not.  For most of us, it is both, depending on the situation.  The intellectual rigor we need to truly evaluate our lives, the journey we are on and the communities we live in, involves respecting the complexity that is ourselves, our surroundings, and even places with divergent outcomes like the Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market.  It is at that point, with the understanding of places, activities and concepts beyond buzzwords and vague terms, we complete this transition, elevating our level of intellectual discourse and giving ourselves the tools we need to make the best of our lives and communities.