DCFM History

Pecatonica Valley Farm. --Photo by Bill Lubing

Pecatonica Valley Farm. --Photo by Bill Lubing

Early Farm Markets
The first American farmers’ markets were imitations of those held across Europe. Farmers came into town on horse-drawn wagons to sell their produce to the city folk. Most markets took place in empty lots on a major boulevard or thoroughfare. This where “Market Streets” came from.

It is still common in Europe today for towns to sponsor market days to allow consumers to purchase their goods daily. This also allows local farmers to sell at a few markets throughout the week.

Vendors set up displays of tables, stands, baskets, bushels and umbrellas that can easily be transported. Public markets are found in most countries today, especially in developing countries where direct sales continue to play a major role in the economy.

The first market in the history of the United States was in the English colonies in 1634 under Governor John Winthrop of Boston. Twenty-eight years later, the city built a wooden building for the market to create a more permanent thoroughfare.

Philadelphia boasted the best planned and regulated markets in the colonies. William Penn’s city plan included a market along the main artery, High Street, later renamed Market Street. According to the original proclamation in 1693, the market opened twice a week with the ringing of bells.

Start of the Dane County Farmers’ Market
Dane County is rich in both rural and urban culture. In 1972, Mayor Bill Dyke recognized a need to unite the two cultures and provide a means for city dwellers to reap some of the county’s agricultural benefits.

Inspired by Europe’s open markets, Dyke called on the Dane County Extension Office and the Central Madison Committee of the Chamber of Commerce to help him replicate the European tradition. The three agencies joined forces to develop the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

However, county farmers were ahead of the game. Grocery store and mall parking lots, gas stations and heavy traffic corners were popular bartering grounds. The agencies hired Dane County farmer Jonathan Barry as the first Farmers’ Market manager. He formed a grower advisory committee to help give some direction to the newly formed Farmers’ Market.

The grounds surrounding the State Capitol are an ideal site to host the market. The magnificent landscape and stunning architecture serve as a spectacular backdrop to Dane County’s most celebrated event.

In the early years, farmers relied on the Chamber of Commerce and the other two agencies for financial support and advice. Every Saturday morning, the farmers paid a small fee to sell their goods.

On the first Saturday in 1972, eager buyers set out to the square with the hopes of loading their bags, wagons and carfts with nature’s gifts, only to find just five farmers and their wares. But by 1973, farmers by the dozens parked overnight to secure the best spot on the Square. In 1974, Barry issued season passes for the stalls in an effort to organize the growing Farmers’ Market. The only rule then, and one still enforced today, is that products must be Wisconsin grown.

The Market has undergone tremendous change since 1972 due to the efforts of the seven individuals who have served as market managers. Today, vendors are members of an organized co-op with nine elected vendors who serve on the Board of Directors.

Additions to the Saturday morning market include 1) a Wednesday morning Market, held in the front of the County Courthouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, 2) an Early Winter Market, held in the Monona Terrace Convention Center, and 3) a Late Winter Market, held in the Madison Senior Center. Both the Wednesday and Saturday Markets run from mid April to early November. Hours on Saturdays are from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Times and dates for the Winter Markets vary. See the When & Where page of this website for details.

Although the Market constantly undergoes change, those responsible keep in mind that the mission of the Dane County Farmers’ Market is primarily to unite the urban and the rural cultures. Whether you are young or old, the Market is an event like no other. The energy and enthusiasm that flows around the square from dawn until mid-afternoon confirm the Market’ success!