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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 local farm markets on the East side to find out what sets them apart.

Meredith's Bread, Kingston NY

East 92nd Street market Sundays; Bowling Green Tuesdays and Thursdays

Even in an area of upstate New York known for their farms and baked goods, Meredith's Bakery still has some of the most popular pies around. Robert Allen, who co-owns the bakery with his wife, says that his favorite is cherry. Every week, they attend dozens of farmer's markets throughout the five boroughs. Their secret is extremely fresh ingredients, and not much added sugar.

"Most people buy pre-made pie shells and a bucket of glop with a few piece of petrified fruit swimming in corn syrup," said Allen. "We don't put any fillers in our pies."

The Allen family has been baking since 1972, and the family business has been up and running since 1987. They have been using and updating their family recipes for quite some time. But this year, they built a brand-new gluten free bakery, inspired by Allen's wife and daughter's celiac's disease.

Despite being popular with their sweets, Meredith's original bakery churned out loaves of fresh bread. Besides having a ton of varieties, from 7-grain to apple harvest bread, Allen said that they try and use all local ingredients and carefully handpick their 20-or-so suppliers, something that not many supermarket bakers can boast. Come later this fall, look for their popular coconut custard pie.

Samascott Orchards, Kinderkhook, NY

Union Square Fridays; East 82nd Street Saturdays

With over 70 varieties in their orchards, just call Samascott Orchards the apple experts - from honey crisp ("with a distinct, sweet crisp" - said Ron Samascott) to the old McIntosh standby.

Ron Samscott said his bakers make the orchard's apples into everything from apple pies to apple cakes and different varieties of cider. But it's not all about apples. At this time of year, their 10 types of pears are also popular, as well as veggies like asparagus, beets, potatoes adn corn. They even just started raising beef cattle and pigs, to sell meat at the markets. And they can do it all on a whopping 1000 acres of land, much more than the modest 180-acre dairy farm that Samascott's grandfather started out with. Today, Ron runs the orchards with his brother, and they take turns trekking 145 miles into the city.

But don't expect to find their apples in your local Key Foods. Samascott Orchards only sells to farmers markets, and they don't bother with wholesale.

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