Obie preaches the importance of organic foods at Durham Farmers’ Market

Obie stands in front of his tent and talks with a potential customer. (Photo by Alex Zietlow)


C. Bernard Obie stands behind his turnips and mustard leaves. His hands are pressed into the pockets of his grey sweater, his legs spread two body widths apart from each other.

He engages with a young man who has been lingering by his tent. At first, the conversation pertains to the food on his table and the whereabouts of Abanitu Farms, the land he owns and manages in Roxboro, North Carolina.

He’s approached and hugged by friends, which interrupts the conversation he has with the young man temporarily. Obie asks how their “lesser halves” are doing and if their kids are enjoying college. At this time, and in this area — everyone knows Obie.

Obie has his organic, spicy turnips stacked on his table. (Photo by Alex Zietlow)

The conversation with the young man continued. And deepened. Quickly.

“Why are you here?” Obie poses to the young man. “It’s a question we all have to consider.”

The kid shrugs off the query, as if he didn’t understand how the philosophically perplexing question related to the raw vegetables Obie was trying to sell at the Durham Farmers’ Market on this more or less random Saturday morning.

“Well, why are you here?” a passerby politely inquires, building off of Obie’s thoughts. “You got to ask yourself that every once in a while. Most of the time, we just coast.”

Obie asks if the passerby and the kid knew each other, but they didn’t. The young man sticks out his hand to introduce himself, and his fellow customer, who is wearing an NPR hat, reciprocates.

“Joe Graedon,” the passerby says, shaking the kid’s hand. Graedon co-hosts The People’s Pharmacy, a nationally-broadcasted WUNC radio show, with his wife, Terry. The show is in its 41st year and discusses traditional and alternative treatments to widespread health issues in the world today.

Graedon, realizing that the young man didn’t recognize his name, turns to Obie with a smile: “He’s too young to listen to the radio.”

Obie laughs and hands the kid three turnips.

“You should listen to this man,” Graedon says as he walks away with his wife.

Obie, 64, is a man of many monikers. He’s a farmer who preaches the importance of eating organic foods, the acting president of the Durham Farmers’ Market, a father and grandfather and an active member of Durham’s farming community.

He’s been coming to the market since 2008.

“We’ve cancelled the market one time since I’ve been here,” Obie said. “The market is like 18 years old now. I’m just saying, these folks come regardless. The farmers come and the shoppers come. They have an unspoken arrangement of mutual support.”

Obie stands positioned like he tends to do when conversing with customers — legs wide, hands in pockets. (Photo by Alex Zietlow)

Obie took his first job out of North Carolina State University at a pharmaceutical company that sold drugs to livestock farmers who harvested animals for food. After 18 months of his “backstage pass” to what he calls the horror show of how animal food is borne, he quit.

He basically jumped from one end of the health spectrum to the other, leaving his job at the pharmaceutical company for a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“In the course of doing that, I would hear all these stories about what was happening to people,” Obie said. “I was like, ‘Damn, everybody is sick!’”

So, years later, he decided to leave his health insurance job and farm organic foods, advocating for better eating habits along the way.

And, thanks to people like Jenny Lazarus, whose job at one point was to “connect local people with local farmers who needed loans,” Obie can now do what he loves to do.

“I use the opportunity to be here as a way to reach and touch people in a very important place in their life,” Obie said. “And I want to elevate their appreciation and understanding of that daily ritual to something that is more revolutionary.”

Every Saturday — come rain, snow or shine — Obie participates in the market’s community. He’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of food production, and he believes that maintaining good health should be the most top priority for all people.

The young man never asked Obie why he was here.

Of course, if he did, the president would provide a competent answer.

Alex Zietlow is a journalism student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. A native of Raleigh, this fall he is serving as sports editor of the VOICE.