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Farmers' market wait is over in more ways than one

Farmers' market wait is over in more ways than one

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The list isn’t as long as the one would-be Green Bay Packers fans are on for season tickets. And it’s not quite as random and exclusive as the one to get into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Even so, every spring, a handful of vendors wait to be the Charlie Bucket or Veruca Salt of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, waiting for their number to come up and their chance to sell their products.

When the outdoor market opens Downtown on Saturday, there will be 12 new vendors who have waited for this day for quite some time. Shoppers and wanderers have only waited since November to head to Capitol Square; for the new vendors, it’s been a little longer.

“We tell them upfront it’s going to be five to seven years,” said market manager Bill Lubing. “There’s nothing we can do about it. It just depends on how many people retire, decide not to come back or pass away.”

On Saturday, about 100 vendors will be on the Square selling primarily herbs, bedding plants, flowers, jams and jellies, baked goods and overwintered vegetables such as carrots, rutabagas or parsnips.

By the season’s peak, when temperatures are toasty and vegetables are tasty, the vendor roster grows to about 165.

One of the new names on the list is Sandra Hunter, owner of Dolci Italian-American Sweets. She has sold her biscotti, cookies and other sweets at the Westside Community Market, which also begins on Saturday, since 2005. This year she is also headed to the market on the Square, and she’d been on the waiting list since 2008.

“I think I started out at 178 or something like that,” Hunter said. “I’m going to make up some banners and put out some red, white and green flags out to say, ‘Hi, I’m new.’

“I’m nervous but it’s a good nervous. It’s a nice problem to have.”

Another new vendor, Anna Hill of Oak Ridge Farm near Oregon, said she was on the waiting list for six years to sell her jams, jellies, pestos, microgreens, herbs and herbal dog biscuits, among other products. This has been a busy week for her, working at a commercial kitchen and creating the weights to keep her tent in place.

“I’m just trying to pace myself right now,” she said. “I’ve been going on adrenaline for a long time.”

Hunter and Hill bring unique products to the market; Hunter’s are less-common bakery items and Hill is creating items out of many greens and herbs that grow wild at her farm, or wildcrafting. Finding a niche is a key to success at the market, for vendors new and old, Lubing said.

“Last summer I went around the Square and everyone was selling asparagus,” Lubing said. “I talked to one vendor who said he wasn’t selling that much asparagus. I said, ‘Put it in a jar and bring it back in November.’ ”

Finding different ways of using products, creating value-added products such as sauces or jams, are something the market is emphasizing this year, Lubing said. It’s partially to help the vendors, but also to help the shoppers. Many come to the market, but don’t want to walk away with a sack of vegetables or meat.

“They’re in town visiting family, or there’s a game, they want something they can put in their purse or bag and take with them or have to refrigerate,” he said. “It makes sense to offer people more things that are small that they can take with them.”

Yet people using the market for their grocery shopping is a big deal, too, Lubing said. That’s part of what’s behind a further emphasis of the Wednesday market, which takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays on the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just off the Square.

This year, the Wednesday market will have its own information stand and “recipe tree,” as well as its own newsletter.

“Last year, morels first showed up at the Wednesday market,” Lubing said. “Sometimes product shows up there before it shows up at the Saturday market and it would be nice to let people know what was going on.”

The market has its rules and routines, and those are the things new vendors will be learning. There’s the seniority that dictates who gets which stalls, as well as a “blackout” rule that might be imposed in which first-year vendors can’t sell if there isn’t room when the market gets crowded in the peak months.

There are also tents and canopies to tame. That’s a lesson Lynn Bednarek of Stenrud Greenhouse, which has been at the market since 1981, learned early on when she lost her tent on a windy day.

“It became airborne and went right over the top of the van one day,” Bednarek said. “It was actually tied to my carts but I forgot the carts had wheels and they started rolling down the sidewalk.”

Beyond a tent, though, Bednarek said a diversity of products and creating niches help. The market is more competitive than it used to be, she said, and just showing up with products isn’t good enough. Yet vendors still have to find a happy medium between having a variety while also having what the market demands.

“At the beginning, my husband was selling and I was home with the kids,” she said. “He came home and left a note on the table of pepper varieties people wanted and I remember thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got a sweet pepper and a jalapeno.’ ”

Eventually she and her husband, Phil, had 63 varieties for sale.

“I’ve scaled back because people would say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic,’ and then buy the jalapeno and the bell pepper,” she said.

Hunter and Hill figure the uniqueness of their products will help them carve their niches. For Hunter, selling at the market is an expansion of what she’s been doing for other markets and stores. For Hill, it’s a chance to go from selling produce through her organic CSA to being more creative in coming up with products made from her gardens and fields. She’ll blend fruits and flowers in her jams, and make pestos with ingredients beyond the standard pine nuts and basil.

“To make enough money to not be a CSA, I needed to be at the Dane County market,” she said.

Hill said she’s nervous about Saturday, but eager to take the next step in the life of her farm.

“The market draws 25,000 people and more when there’s events,” she said.

“You can’t ask for a better storefront. Unless your tent blows away.”

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