Dalton, Wis., isn't far as the crow flies, just under 50 miles from Madison. Once there, you'll find the kind of American farm life that lives in the imagination, but isn't always easy to see up close.
A few cars were pulled up to the massive shed that houses the Tri-County Produce Auction when I arrived on a weekday morning. Horse-drawn buggies soon outnumbered cars, as Tri-County was founded by Amish growers. Those attending the auction ranged in age from three upwards; all who were big enough were helping.
Auction manager Norman Miller, a certified organic grower and vendor, explained how to get started as a buyer and understand the auction floor. As he talked, produce was being loaded into separate rows - broom-sized bunches of fresh dill, bushels upon bushels of pickling cucumbers, muskmelon in corrugated cardboard bins as big as a lawn tractor, and what seemed an entire field of sweet corn. In keeping with the target market - large-scale buyers - very little was packaged in lots smaller than a bushel. Rows are organized by lot size and grade.
The growers at Tri-County are making steady progress towards full USDA grading compliance, but are as yet not completely there, according to Miller. While certified organic growers are a small percentage of the total roster, their numbers are increasing. But when I asked Miller what percentage of the growers fed their farm's harvest to their own families, he said 100%.
Buying at Tri-County is easy. Go to the office for a number and a paddle. You learn how to read the grower ID labels. Tags indicate if you can bid on part of a lot or if it's winner-take-all.
Once the auctioneer announces the start, vendors stand to show samples of their produce as you try to keep up with the flow of words. Once your buy is made, it's pulled to the side for you to load out of the bay.
You don't have to bring a semi, but you do need to plan for amounts up to and over a bushel, even several bushels. As far as using all the produce, if you're a canner or own a big freezer, you're a step ahead; another option could be forming a buyer's club with friends, CSA-style.
A few hours here can give already enthusiastic locavores some new ideas about how to cook through the harvest - or simply provide more raw material than many urban gardeners can expect to harvest themselves, and at excellent prices. If you're interested in getting up close and personal with local farm food, it's worth the trip. Auctions are held several days a week at 11 a.m., but the days vary. For more info on Tri-County, call 920-382-0546; for a complete schedule and information on produce auctions in Cashton and Fennimore, see ifmwi.org/auctions.aspx.