Farm markets, indie restaurants have value

Summer has yet to arrive, but hundreds of farmers in Wisconsin already have begun their harvests. This is our good fortune, and I hope it continues this way.

It seems like just about every little town has a summer farmers’ market, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is aware of 114 in our state. Nationwide, 82 percent of these markets create enough income to cover their expenses, and 19,000 farmers sell their products only this way.

Now Wal-Mart execs have made it clear that they intend to sell more naturally grown and organic food. This powerhouse in global purchasing/pricing threatens our local, charming, vital markets and will be a new test for consumers.

Must lowest price always be our biggest bottom line? Is there value in seeing and interacting with the people whose food reaches your table? Do you appreciate the freshness and flavor of berries or tomatoes picked shortly before being sold?

The state’s newest farm market player is the Milwaukee Public Market, with 20 indoor and year-round vendors in the city’s Historic Third Ward. Now that the weather has warmed, there also are vendors outdoors.

A draw, besides the products, is the cooking classes that are held at least weekly in a demonstration kitchen that seats up to 70. Fees for June (grilled fish to strawberries to tailgating are topics) are $30-60 per class.

I live in Madison, where farmers’ markets are plentiful and in multiple locations, almost daily. Dane County Farmers’ Market is a giant nationally; about 300 vendors surround the State Capitol on Saturdays.

Only agricultural items made or grown in Wisconsin can be sold. There is a three-year waiting list for vendors who want to participate. It is about ostrich and emu meat as well as homemade cottage cheese, pasta and dog treats, asparagus to trout, potted plants to pea vines.

The Capitol Square is the hottest place to be on a Saturday morning in Madison, and thousands will toddle counter-clockwise to absorb the array of street musicians, political causes and vendors.

It is a slow-moving rotation of spectators, and serious shoppers tend to either arrive early or gravitate to the smaller markets, where the number of vendors is smaller, but there is more elbow room.

Lisa Lathrop sells her high-end cheesecakes out of coolers at the Westside Community Market on Saturdays. The choices are sweet, savory, for vegans, for dessert, for breakfast. Her Wisconsin Cheesecakery Inc. business recently was featured in Time magazine, in a feature about how independently owned restaurants and food producers are fighting the marketing clout of restaurant chains.

If step one is to support the local farmers and their products, step two is to favor the indy restaurants whose menus rely upon locally grown ingredients. It is these chefs who make sure that endangered foods and food products do not vanish because of high-yield and highly engineered corporate farm practices.

More than five dozen Wisconsin restaurants are among the 700 members of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America. CIRA, also known as Dine Originals, has chapters in Milwaukee and Madison; Madison recently hosted the national group’s board and advisory board.

The three-day event included a seven-course Slow Food dinner that was a tribute to increasingly rare food and beverage commodities. This project of chefs from Harvest, Lombardino’s, L’Etoile, Blue Marlin and Restaurant Muramoto in Madison will be repeated quarterly.

A newly updated and free Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas lists dozens of farms, markets and other businesses that sell local ag products directly to consumers.

The Farm Fresh Atlas of Southeast Wisconsin lists 65 farms, 10 other businesses and 45 farmers’ markets in nine counties. When pressed, coordinator Rose Skora especially recommends the markets in Brookfield and at Kenosha’s harbor.

The 14-county atlas for western Wisconsin will contain 79 farms and non-farm retailers, plus 13 markets. Similar publications for central and eastern Wisconsin also exist.

Do you have a farmers’ market or independently owned restaurant that is a favorite? Drop a line, to let me know the name and location, plus a comment or two about what makes it special.

On my list of places to visit is the new Native Bay Restaurant and Lounge, near Chippewa Falls. Chef/owner Nathan Berg participated in the recent Slow Food dinner presentation in Madison. Native Bay – www.nativebayrestaurant.com, 715-726-0434, 9504 Hwy. S South – overlooks Lake Wissota and has pontoon boats for rent, lakeside decks and tiki bar. It is big on Midwest microbrews and artisan/locally grown foods.

For more:

Milwaukee Public Market – Open all year and daily, except Mondays, at 400 N. Water St. www.milwaukeepublicmarket.org, 414-336-1111.

Dane County Farmers’ Market – 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, through Nov. 4, downtown Capitol Square. (On July 8, the market is relocated because of art fairs.) www.madfarmmkt.org, 608-455-1999.

Dine Originals – www.dineoriginals.com, which includes chapters in the Madison (www.madisonoriginals.org) and Milwaukee (www.milwaukeeoriginals.org) areas.

Slow Food USA – www.slowfoodusa.org, 718-260-8000.

Farm markets in Wisconsin – www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets, 800-384-8704.

Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas – www.reapfoodgroup.org.

Southeast Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas – www.slowfoodwise.org (select “projects”).

Central Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas – online later this month at www.goldensandsrcd.org.

Farm Fresh Atlas of Western Wisconsin – online later this month at www.wifarmfresh.org.

Farm Fresh Atlas of Eastern Wisconsin – contact Glacierland RC&D, Green Bay, at 920-465-3006 or glacierlandrcd@aol.com.