CENTRAL LAKE — When a reporter behind the King’s Orchard farm store counter asked President Joe Biden what brought him to Michigan, his answer was brief: cherry pie.
He said as much after picking out several pies, from apple to cherry to raspberry crumble, with farm co-owner Betsy King explaining each one and the other farm-grown products there.
Biden visited the store Saturday afternoon moments after Juliette King McAvoy, the farm’s vice president of sales and co-owner John King’s daughter, toured the president and his group through the cherry trees. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, also Democrats, flanked him in the orchard. The four spoke with a crowd gathered on the farm’s strawberry field, pausing here and there for selfies and shaking plenty of hands.
The stop, after landing in Traverse City on Saturday morning and returning by mid-afternoon, was part of the Biden administration’s Fourth of July weekend plans that include a barbecue on the White House lawn with first responders, essential workers and military service members.
He wasn’t the only one traveling, either, with Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden on the road as well as Biden touts a $973 billion infrastructure package he recently negotiated with a bipartisan group of lawmakers but which Congress has not yet passed.
It’s something Biden wanted to talk to King McAvoy about. Good roads are important not only to get the farm’s products to market, but to bring people to the farm, she said.
Flooding in Detroit and the region after downpours in late June highlighted the importance of infrastructure investment, Whitmer told reporters while talking to the crowd.
Whitmer said she has spoken to Biden about those infrastructure needs.
“We haven’t had any conversations about specific projects, but certainly with the incredible flooding that we suffered a week and a half ago, infrastructure is on everybody’s mind,” she said. “It’s always on my mind but it’s on everybody’s because we saw under-invested infrastructure collide with climate change.”
Michigan and the nation is short of the 70 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate Biden set as a goal to reach by July 4, with the White House conceding beforehand that not enough people had gotten the shot.
Whitmer said she hopes the recently announced MI Shot to Win sweepstakes could help — cheers erupted when she asked a few in the crowd if they signed up.
Eligible, vaccinated Michiganders who do could win cash prizes or, for those between the ages 12 and 17, one of nine scholarships.
The visit also was a chance for King McAvoy to let the president, governor and both U.S. senators know about the hardships a family farm like King Orchards faces, she said. Increasingly common bad weather shares the blame, with both a spring frost followed by a warm spell knocking cherry the farm’s yields down to about 25 percent of its sweet cherries and 15 percent of its tart cherries.
It’s the second such crop failure in as many years, and the fourth in 20, King McAvoy said.
And international trade disputes, particularly with Turkey over cherry exports, have battered prices on tart cherries for years.
“It’s becoming increasingly hard to make a living as a family farm, so I wanted to convey that ... I believe Americans want to buy American-grown food and support family farms, and that we need to protect our food security,” King McAvoy said afterward.
That came as no surprise to Biden, she added — he related to her a story about a wine grower in California struggling with drought.
She introduced Biden, Peters, Stabenow and Whitmer to two couples, Pedro Francisco and Juana Miguel, and Jesus Sebastien and Maria Pascual. All four came from Guatemala and have been working at the farm for 35 years. Now, their children have gone to college and they have grandchildren.
King McAvoy stressed to the president the importance of a pathway to citizenship as a way for immigrants to thrive, something he told her he supported for agricultural workers.
She said the farm’s operations are labor-intensive, and John King said 14 seasonal workers from Mexico are helping this year.
“Everywhere there’s an influx of immigrants, the labor creates wealth,” John King said afterward.
Back in Traverse City, Mayor Jim Carruthers spoke to Biden on a handful of clean water issues, including protecting the Great Lakes. That includes from Line 5, Enbridge Energy’s pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac. The company wants to replace the 60-plus-year-old crossing with a pipeline inside an underground tunnel — something the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced it would submit to an environmental impact statement process.
The company insists the current line is safe, but Carruthers, Whitmer, Indigenous tribes and many others say it’s a threat to the lakes and so many activities that depend on them.
John Cassidy of Brighton was in the strawberry field and waiting for the president to make his way down the line. He, his wife and some friends had come to pick that day and heard from another friend that the president would be there. He hopes for some national unity.
“We support him and we’ll do whatever we can to help bring our country back together,” he said.
For Stephanie Wilson of Traverse City, it was a chance for her, her husband and two school-age boys to see the president while visiting their favorite farm, she said.
John King said the visit meant you-pick cherries were off for the day — it probably would’ve been the busiest one of the year — but picking raspberries and strawberries went ahead.
The president spoke to reporters briefly in the store on a few outside but pressing topics, like yet another wave of ransomware attacks clobbering companies’ computer systems nationwide Saturday.
Past attacks have been attributed to hackers inside Russia, with Biden recently speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin about reining in the criminal activity.
The U.S. will respond accordingly if the latest attacks were from within Russia, but so far the source is unclear, Biden said.
“We’re not certain, the initial thinking was, it was not a Russian company, but we’re not sure,” he said.
Otherwise the president spoke to the Kings or the crowd while the press watched from a distance his staffers maintained.
Law enforcement, both Antrim County Sheriff’s deputies and Michigan State Police troopers, were present alongside Secret Service members, with a few emergency medical technicians and a local ambulance on hand as well.