For 40 years, my husband, Matt, and I had a prime spot at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. We peddled poultry and asparagus and watched the downtown and its people grow and change.

If you’ve shopped the market, you’d probably recognize him, now an old hippie with a thinning white ponytail. The Willy Street Co-op newsletter once described him as “the iconic farmers’ market farmer.” (Him: What does that mean? Me: You’re old.)

Our stand, Blue Valley Gardens, was on Pinckney Street near the Old Fashioned. We chatted with politicians and homeless folks, making connections and lifelong friends among customers, chefs and other farmers.

The market ran our lives, down to our choice of a wedding date and to the births of our children. A handy obstetrics calendar shows that their births were 40 weeks after the Art Fair on the Square, the only weekend we took off all summer.

Our market life seemed a summer daydream that would last forever, until the pandemic abruptly pulled the plug. Matt’s last market was the first Saturday in March 2020 at the Garver Feed Mill. He caught a bug that turned into pneumonia. COVID? We’ll never know. But suddenly interacting with thousands of people and their money seemed like a terrible risk.

We pivoted to selling online, to restaurants and at our small local farmers’ market. It’s much easier on our aging bodies and now we have something we never had before: Weekends.

But we never got to say farewell to all the people who were part of our lives for so long. We watched your kids grow up, as you did ours. We supplied food for your weddings and turkeys for your Thanksgiving tables. We knew so much about you, although we often didn’t know your names. But we still think of you.

What has become of you, geiger counter couple? Did you ever detect nuclear fallout on the tomatoes? And you, bunny mom, who carried her rabbit in a baby sling so it could sample the lettuce, did you find the perfect munch for him? Peruvian flute players, we don’t really miss you; you’re shrill and should learn more songs. But you’re still preferable to the piccolo guy, and those damn calliopes. And you naked bike riders? Do you remember the farmers who would spray you with a water pistol? That was us!

The Square was a very different place when we first first set up a stand in 1980. Then, many storefronts were empty and downtown was so dead on a Saturday morning that you could park for free in the city ramps. At our first market, we made $30, and thought that was pretty good.

Matt was running Harvest Haven farm, which is now beneath the Sub Zero plant in Fitchburg. Local food was definitely not a thing in 1980. I remember him taking a beautiful box of basil and tomatoes to a Madison restaurant and the chef turning him down flat. Our neighbors at Quivey’s Grove were the first to take a chance on this crazy idea of buying local.

Matt’s second job, for Barnard Orchard, put our market stand next to a skinny hippie chick who would trade us hot croissants for cider. She was Odessa Piper, of L’Etoile, and our friendship with her would change everything.

When we bought our own farm, she asked what we could grow for her. From that brainstorming, we expanded into all kinds of specialties, from fingerling potatoes to white asparagus. She became the local food champion of the Midwest and would bring celebrity chefs to our stand. Through her we met Julia Child and Alice Waters, and she introduced us to Chicago chefs like Jean Joho and Rick Bayless. They became customers.

Tami Lax at Harvest introduced us to the Slow Food movement, and we joined “the Ark” that saved heritage breeds of turkeys from extinction. The birds were pretty and tasted delicious but gobbled corn all summer long and barely gained weight. At the roundup, they flew up into the trees and mocked us, squawking. There may be reasons why turkey farmers switched to the slow white birds that can’t fly.

Our kids grew up at the market, where they learned to make change and were sometimes returned to our stand by the Capitol Police, either because they were lost or because they got busted for climbing trees. Truthfully we didn’t know where they were most of the time. Once, my son reappeared and casually mentioned that the rooms at the Concourse Hotel were very nice. I freaked, imagining pedophiles. It turned out the Harmony Valley Farm had a room there, and their kids invited him up to play video games.

We were fortunate to live in Dane County and not need a hotel, but we still had a predawn race to get to our spot. You pay for your place, but if you’re not there by 6 a.m., it’s up for grabs. Daily vendors without permanent spots would line up and at 6 a.m. sharp, a road rally of pickups would roar onto the Square, jockeying for spaces. It got pretty wild in the old days. We were late only once in 40 years, and it resulted in a legendary police citation.

We had overslept, and by the time we got to the Square, our spot was gone. Our friends smooshed over to make room for us, so I dropped off the boys and the asparagus, but there was no room for the truck. Park it somewhere, my husband ordered, tossing me the keys.

I made the fatal error of choosing the aging Dayton Street ramp. As I drove in, searching for a spot, I didn’t notice that the ceiling and floor got closer together the deeper you drove into the ramp. And did I mention the truck had high wooden sidewalls in the back? Behind me, a long line of impatient drivers idled, waiting to park and making it impossible to back out.

I pressed forward, looking for a place to turn around, and the truck walls started scraping the ceiling. Then they started ripping the light fixtures out of the ceiling. Scrape, BOOM! I kept creeping deeper into the ramp and the light fixtures started piling up in the back of the truck. I started crying. My toddler daughter, in the child seat next to me, sucked harder on her pacifier.

Suddenly — BLAM! — the stairwell door flew open, and there was a Madison cop, gun drawn and pointing at me. She later apologized and said that when she heard the noise, she thought someone was shooting out the lights. She ordered the drivers behind me to back out so I could get out of that accursed ramp. I was full-out sobbing by then, and she patted my arm, telling me, “This is why we have insurance.”

The cop later stopped by the stand with a citation for destruction of public property. I worked at the Wisconsin State Journal then, and my police reporter pal made sure to get a copy and tack it to the newsroom bulletin board, where it hung for months, taunting me.

As the market got more popular, it got more crowded. As we stood in our tent, we could watch the crowd change. Now, dawn is when you see the chefs and serious foodies like our friend Cheri, who calls the market her “church” and wheels a wicker basket from France to hold all her finds.

By 9 a.m. the sidewalks are packed with what Matt calls the “stroller and doughnut crowd.” They might buy cinnamon rolls and cheese curds, but not many vegetables. Later, the “morning-after crowd” of younger people looking for lattes rolls in, followed, in the fall, by the Badger crowd. Not a lot of football fans take a head of lettuce with them into Camp Randall, either.

Our good buyers started defecting to the West Side and Monona markets, and who could blame them? The smaller markets have free parking, room to move, and don’t cost you a full morning to buy a basket of groceries. I defected, too, to Saturday yoga, deciding that driving to Madison five days a week for work was enough. My old State Journal pal George Hesselberg took my spot at the stand, launching the 10-year run of what my girlfriend called “The George and Matt Show.” Their comedy routine was also preempted by COVID.

Just as the market grew from nothing into the biggest and best in the country, like all living things, it could also wither and die. I hope people appreciate the market’s part in making downtown Madison the beautiful gathering spot it has become.

It’s bittersweet saying farewell, but easier because our spot is now occupied by our friends from the Kingfisher Farm. They’re a beautiful young family with little kids, who remind me of us, back in the day. Matt and his codger farmer friends grouse that the market peaked in the 1990s, but looking at the Kingfisher family and their enthusiasm, I think that maybe we peaked back then.

Kingfisher raises lamb on a farm near Argyle, and ferments some sassy kimchi, so stop by and check them out. Oh, and please buy some broccoli to go with those doughnuts. Your farmers will thank you. 

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