The Badgerland Produce Co-op Auction barn, located about 65 miles north of Madison near Montello, offers just-picked, often organic produce at bargain prices. Madison-area restaurants, hospitals, grocers, farm market sellers, even the county jail and UW food service go there to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. Anyone is welcome to show up, claim an auction paddle and bid. So on a sunny late June morning, I went.
The bidding on a half-bushel size box of organic beets started at $3. I nabbed it for $3.50. I was feeling a little giddy, knowing that I'd have paid that much money for just four or five of those beets at the Farmers' Market. Before I came to my senses, I'd purchased a big box of cauliflower and another of broccoli for $3.50 each, 15 pounds of peas for $7 and wild black cap berries for $3 a pint.
At about noon, I paid a pittance for my haul and loaded up my little station wagon. I stopped on the way home for freezer bags and jelly jars, anticipating how much we would enjoy these home-preserved, edible summer memories in January. And I was basking in the knowledge that I'd just spent a pleasant couple of hours getting to know the farmers who grew all that food for me.
Badgerland Produce Cooperative has more than 200 grower-members. Regular buyers include the Jenifer Street Market, Meriter and UW Hospitals, the Dane County Jail and Courthouse, Mendota Mental Health Institute and restaurants at Monona Terrace and the Hilton Hotel.
Mary Reading, co-op manager and auctioneer, starts the bidding at 11 a.m. on Mondays and at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.
"It's all local, from a 100-mile radius. Everything has been harvested no more than 24 hours before the auction starts. And a lot of the produce is certified organic," Reading says.
The cooperative was formed six years ago, after one of the founders, Chuck Stollfus, read an article about a similar venture in Pennsylvania. He enlisted the assistance of the Marquette County agricultural extension agent, who organized a series of meetings to help the 39 original members set up their operation and learn how to make it succeed.
Business partners Linda Calkins and Randy Fischer are selling produce at the auction for the first time this summer. Both lost jobs at the Gordon Flesch Company on the same day last winter. With jobs scarce, they decided to put Calkins' five acres near Deerfield to work.
"I'd always gardened, so I thought, hey, I know how to grow vegetables," she laughs. Both are enjoying the lifestyle change, and on this particular Monday morning they were very pleased to have sold everything they brought to the auction.
"We're not making millions," Fischer says. "But we are doing okay, and we are just getting started."
At 9:30 p.m. on that warm June night, I was still boiling water to blanch broccoli. I was up to my ankles in cauliflower and beet greens and the sink was filled with dishtowels stained purple with beet juice. Several dozen bags of veggies were chilling in the freezer. Five jewel-colored jars of wild berry jelly twinkled on the windowsill. But the mound of unshelled peas finally defeated me. I put the peas in several paper bags and made stealth vegetable drops on the neighbors' front stoops.
I'm going back for sweet corn. But just sweet corn. Unless I get carried away again.