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With the early harvest season in full swing, green markets are fine-tuning their stance against Whole Foods and others

"Are your chickens free-roaming, and what do you feed them?" asks a woman holding a recyclable grocery bag, and eyeing an egg carton full of brown, spotted eggs.

The farmer in question launches into an animated discussion about his chickens, knowing that other organic options, from Whole Foods to Fresh Direct -- are a short walk or a click away.

So what is the difference between buying your arugula at a place like Whole Foods or at a farmer's market?

According to greenmarket farmers like Andrew Cote, who harvests honey from beehives all over the city, and Robert Allen, who co-owns Meredith's Bread and sells bread and pies to the markets, it's the personal touch of farmer's markets that allows them to stay competetive.

"We've tried just about everything, but the face-to-face sale is the best," said Allen. "The customer gets to see a real person and we get real feedback."

There are 50 Grow NYC greenmarkets dotted throughout the city, as well as a variety of other farmers markets. And despite an onslaught of competition in recent years, as consumers have become more aware of the quality and provenance of their food, most of them are holding their own.

"The same person making the food is the person selling you," said farmer Jeanne Hodesh. "It doesn't get any more direct than that."

We spoke to a few of the regular vendors at the Tucker Square Greenmarket (Columbus Ave at 66th Street, Thursdays and Saturdays, year-round 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.) to find out what sets them apart from their big-box competitors.

Locust Grove Fruit Farm

Milton-on-Hudson, NY

Locust Grove offers a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in season. Right now their stands are full of apples, grapes, plums, peaches and nectarines. The farm was established in 1820, and as the majority of the farms selling their produce here, Locust Grove farm is a family farm, this one seventh generation.

Carl Otto, one of the workers, spoke about their produce. It's not organic, but they use a low-spray program put out by Cornell University. "Our produce comes from the area, we can leave fruit on the bush longer, which gives them a good flavor," Otto said, while bright apples and peaches from California have to be picked earlier in order to preserve taste and freshness during their trip from the west to the east.

One of the regulars of the Tucker Square green market gave the same reason why she shops here instead of the grocery stores for her produce: "The apples have more flavor, I'd rather buy them here," she said.

Prospect Hill Orchards

Milton, NY

Prospect Hill has been in business for over 200 years. This past week they brought different kinds of apples, peaches, pears, honey, granola products and pastry (homemade cookies, muffins and fruit pies) to the Tucker Square Greenmarket. Pam Clarke, one of the owners, said that their apples and peaches are partially organic. "In general, stuff is fresher. We`ve got three kinds of apples that just got picked up yesterday. You won`t find it in a grocery store," said Pam. At the peak of season their farm has twenty five kinds of apples.

Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse

Milford, NJ

Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse produces 100 percent grass-fed raw cow's milk cheeses, wood-fired rustic breads and pasture-raised meats. Nina White, a co-owner of Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, spoke about the freshness of her goods (cheeses and breads): "Everything I do is made with the finest raw ingredients. My cows eat only grass on my property. In winter times they are not milked and eat hay. They are basically raised if they were in nature." Their cheeses are made daily; the process of making cheese takes half a day. "My animals rarely need medication because they do not have stress," White said. "If the cow has a scratch from a tree branch I'll give her medication." The cheeses are created by her husband, and they even give them names. As for breads, White uses whole generically approved grains: "I pay for grains more, because they are better. I get them directly from the farmer."

Karen McLaughlim buys White's produce every week. She has been doing it ever since they opened in 2003. She says she prefers buying here because she likes buying from people she knows. Even though the prices are a little higher, she still likes to buy her breads and cheeses here. "I like the people, the food and it's quality is better, it's delicious," she said.

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