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Nov 6, 2012
Diversity makes up for crop losses at Wisconsin farmers’ market

The weather hit Wisconsin growers hard this season, but that hasn’t seemed to deter anyone from attending the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wis. The Badger State market is the nation’s largest producer-only market, boasting 160 to 170 vendors on a given Saturday – and a good turnout of about 41 for the mid-week market, too, said market manager Larry Johnson.

The market started in 1972, Johnson said, and has been going continuously. Everything has to be produced in Wisconsin.

The Saturday markets are held on the Capitol Square grounds of the state’s capitol building. The market has a kind of festival atmosphere, Johnson said. In addition to growers and produce, there are meats, cheeses, baked goods and other typical farmers’ market fare: entertainers, arts and crafts, nonprofit, political and public information vendors.

Just how big is the Saturday market?

“We did a survey and we average about 20,000 customers on a typical Saturday,” Johnson said. “We’ve never done a survey for Wednesday, but it is a different kind of market. Office people sneak out, pick up some pasties and snacks in the morning. About 11:30 they pour out of their offices and pick up produce, and by 2 o’clock we’re gone. It works.”

The Wednesday market moves a short way from the capitol grounds and is held on the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in the heart of the downtown business district.

During winter months, from January to April, the Saturday market moves indoors to the Madison Senior Center.

There are a lot of different growers who come to the market.

“We have some full-time farmers, some small backyard growers just supplementing their income, and everything in between,” Johnson said.

Freezes, drought

Spring freezes and a drought hit much of the country’s fruit and vegetable regions this year. Wisconsin was no exception, and it was evident at the market, Johnson said.

“We had some significant losses,” he said. “some growers with just 10-40 percent production this year. If they have irrigation they were salvaging some. Vegetable people with drip are doing OK, although they were missing some plantings.”

“The season has been a challenge because of lack of water and the hot temperatures,” said Heather Brandt, owner of the Green Barn Farm Market in Ripon, Wis., one of the vendors at the market. “The heat helped the melons and tomatoes, and was bad for the broccoli and cauliflower.”

Like many growers, Brandt said they relied on irrigation, but that was hard to achieve this season. Their high-capacity well actually ran dry. They have a 100-acre pivot, and it was just sucking air, she said.

The early spring really hurt some of the apple growers, too, Johnson said.

One grower, Matt Sutter of Sutter’s Ridge Orchards in Mt. Horeb, Wis., said he was definitely down a bit.

“The raspberries and pumpkins are doing fine because I have drip tape on them,” he said. “Our apples got hit with the early frost. We’re down probably 80 percent. The Zestar and Honeycrisp were in full bloom. With the drought, we had a high wind event. We lost a bunch that were stressed from the drought. We had a 75-mile-an-hour wind.”

Sutter’s raspberries were looking good and selling well, he said. He watered them every three days and fertilized via drip irrigation. In August, they were getting so loaded they were falling over, he said. Sutter grows mostly Autumn Bliss raspberries as his main variety. Caroline is his second, along with some others.

The season has been trying, and different than other seasons, said Cheryl Heck, owner of Heck’s Market, Arena, Wis. She has irrigation, too.

“It costs a lot, but it helps,” she said.

Sweet corn has been tricky this year, Heck said.

“We had a lot of bad germination and tips drying up because of the heat earlier,” she said. “We grow on sand and we usually have the early sweet corn, but this year was very early. We had sweet corn the 15th of June. If we have sweet corn by the Fourth of July, we’re happy.”

In August, some cool nights had Heck’s tomatoes slowing down when it came to ripening. The watermelons have slowed down too, she said, and it hurt quality.

Diversity helps

The diversity of the market and the vendors is what really saves the situation when the seasons are tough, Johnson said.

“Some of the customers are surprised we have this much produce,” he said. “We have 300 vendors in our organization. One way or another, we can get product to market. We have different soil types, different climate types and a lot of diversity. It is not as much in some years as we’d like, but we’re here.”

That diversity is a big attraction, Johnson said.

“We have some customers that drive four hours one way just to come to this market.”

Brandt said there seems to be a good amount of customers coming to the market.

“My sales have been good,” she said. “This is my 21st season, and by now people know me.”

Heck echoed that statement.

“We’ve been at the Madison market for 29 years, so we have a lot of repeat customers,” she said.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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