Biden told of 'rough year' during cherry farm tour in Antrim County

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Traverse City — President Joe Biden learned Saturday that many Michigan cherry farmers are having a tough season because of volatile weather after he visited  a cherry farm in Antrim County.

The president made a roughly four-hour trip to northern Michigan, where he toured King Orchards and bought cherry sodas and a variety of fruit pies. He also made an unscheduled stop at a Traverse City ice cream parlor, where he bought an ice cream cone and mingled with patrons.

The first stop was the cherry farm. Juliette King McAvoy, daughter of King Orchards co-owner John King, told Biden, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township about the drought and recent heavy rains that have damaged the cherry crop.

President Joe Biden poses for a photo after touring King Orchards fruit farm Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Central Lake, Michigan.

At one point, Biden asked about the differences between two types of cherry trees in the orchard.

King McAvoy told him that the trees would normally be "laden with fruit," but some of the branches came down.

"It's been a rough year," she said, adding that farmers really don't know how to handle the volatile weather.

Michigan's tart cherry crop for this season is estimated to be 65.6 million pounds, a 5% drop from the 69.3 million pounds harvested in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But both years marked a two-thirds drop from the 201 million pounds harvested in 2018 and a lesser but substantial decline from the 170 pounds in 2019.

President Joe Biden on Saturday visited King Orchards in Central Lake, Michigan, where he got a tour of the cherry farm and met some of the pickers.

Michigan is the dominant state in the country for producing tart cherries.

The state's warm April led to a devastating early bloom when a days-long polar trough in May froze buds and kept bees from pollinating. Tart cherries took the biggest hit. They were already down about two-thirds, the worst of recent consecutively bad years, said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center, 10 miles north of Traverse City on Leelanau Peninsula.  

This was followed by four days of rain, ending last Sunday, that split cherries, mainly sweet ones. Farmers and industry watchers used words such as “demoralizing,” “devastation,” even “anger.”

Biden was then introduced to some of the farm's cherry pickers, who were up on ladders picking the ripe fruit. 

Later, a crowd of what appeared to be 200 customers hooted and hollered praise for Biden as he rounded a turn in the orchard and came into view. The president worked his way down the line, shaking hands and posing for pictures. At one point, he crossed over the line to join the crowd. 

Biden's visit wasn't publicized, and most of the people waiting to shake Biden's hand had come to the orchard to pick U-pick strawberries, a White House aide said. 

After 3:25 p.m., Biden entered the orchard market and declared, "I'm going to look at the pies." Employees gave him a tour of the market, where he was shown canned jam and canned cherries.

"You all want a cherry soda?"Biden asked his advance team, according to the pool report, and ended up buying six after an advance team member suggested getting three.

The president purchased five pies: cherry crumb, cherry, cherry raspberry, apple and blueberry. 

The helicopter and motorcade trip to the cherry farm came after Biden landed at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City around 12:35 p.m.

At the airport, Biden spoke with Whitmer as well as the senators and at one point the governor and president held hands, according to the pool report. After the gathering broke up, Biden had an extended discussion with Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers.

The trip is the Democratic president's third visit to Michigan in the less than six months he has been in office. Republican predecessor Donald Trump didn't make his third trip to Michigan until March 2019, more than two years into his presidency.

Biden's latest visit is part of a nationwide tour related to recovery from the coronavirus and encouragement of unvaccinated Americans to get shots of the vaccine.

President Joe Biden salutes as he boards Air Force One upon departure, Saturday, July 3, 2021, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Biden is en route to Traverse City, Michigan.

Grand Traverse County, where Traverse City is located, has among Michigan's highest vaccination rates with 68.1% of adults 16 years and older having received at least one dose of COVID vaccine — close to Biden's goal of 70% by July 4. That compares with the statewide average of 56.5% through Friday.

Vice President Kamala Harris was to make a similar trip to Detroit on Monday to encourage vaccinations, but that visit was postponed after major flooding in the city over the weekend.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he met Saturday with Biden at the cherry farm to discuss the recent flooding in Detroit.

Communities across Metro Detroit, and especially in Wayne County, suffered damage from last weekend's flooding. Some sections of the region as much as 7 inches of rain over a 12-hour period between the night of June 25 and the morning of June 26, prompting an emergency declaration from Whitmer that will be in place until July 24.

The governor is seeking a presidential declaration of disaster, which requires a review by the Federal Emergency Management Authority to evaluate whether disaster conditions exist. Biden makes the final decision.

Duggan said in a statement he had a chance to show Biden "pictures of the terrible impact of the flood in our area and asked for his help. He understands the urgency and committed his team to move as fast as legally possible on a presidential disaster declaration review as soon as he receives the legal request from the state."

Biden and Duggan became friends and political allies during the Obama administration, when the then-vice president paid visits to Detroit and helped steer some existing federal aid to the financially beleaguered city before and after it declared the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy.

“The president made it clear to his team that he wants to do everything in his power to help the people of Michigan who suffered from this terrible flood," the mayor said.

Biden's trip comes after the White House acknowledged last week that it would be likely to miss its goal of partially vaccinating at least 70% of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July. Instead, the country will probably hit 70% of vaccinations for Americans age 27 and older by Sunday. 

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have met Biden's goal of 70% partially vaccinated, but Michigan is not among that group.

Michigan State University Epidemiologist Dr. Nigel Paneth said he thinks it's too soon to celebrate the end of the pandemic.

"I guess I would be a bit more cautious," said Paneth, an emeritus university distinguished professor in the departments of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Pediatrics & Human Development.

"With only 47% of the population fully vaccinated, we are not in a position to resist the onslaught of another, more communicable version of COVID-19 such as the Delta variant, " he said, noting that new outbreaks would be less severe because most of the susceptible elderly are now vaccinated. 

President Joe Biden bought six cherry sodas and five pies at the Kings Orchard market. The pies were cherry crumb, cherry, cherry raspberry, apple and blueberry.

"We have low numbers now, but we are loosening public health precautions, international travel is resuming, and unless and until we have a higher fraction of the population immunized, at least 70% to 80%, we cannot say that we have anything other than a temporary respite."

The White House also mentioned the bipartisan Senate talks about an infrastructure spending package prior to the trip, but the topic wasn't raised during the cherry farm tour.

Before a gathering of reporters after the tour, Whitmer was asked if she spoke to Biden about infrastructure projects specifically for Michigan that the package might finance.

"I'm the 'fix the damn roads' governor, so I talk infrastructure with everybody, including the president," she said. "We haven't had a conversation about specific projects, but certainly with the incredible flooding that we suffered a week and a half ago, infrastructure is on everyone's mind.

"What we saw (in Detroit) was a lack of investment in infrastructure combined with climate change — and all of our freeways were flooded within hours."

Whitmer added with a smile that it was also the reason "why this infrastructure package is so important. That's also why I got the president rocky road fudge from Mackinac Island for his trip here."

Biden was last in Michigan on May 18, when he visited a Ford Motor Co. truck plant in Dearborn and took a spin in the electric F-150 Lightning. Before that, he visited the Pfizer plant in Portage that manufactures the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine.

President Joe Biden visited Saturday King Orchards in Central Lake in northern Michigan's Antrim County.

First lady Jill Biden traveled to Michigan in June, speaking at a pop-up vaccine clinic at Grand Rapids Community College's DeVos campus.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also came to Michigan last month, stopping at community colleges in Dearborn and Warren to encourage young people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and highlight the Biden administration's effort to provide two years of free college.

This time around, Biden didn't make a stop in southeast Michigan due to the massive cleanup that's underway from flooding, which has kept the Interstate 94 freeway closed in Detroit and Dearborn, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

"It wouldn't make sense to take valuable resources away from the flooding recovery in many communities," Dingell told The Detroit News on Friday after spending her morning  touring flood-damaged homes. "He's fully aware of what's going on in Michigan because I raised it with him at the White House on Wednesday."

President Joe Biden is greeted by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, second from left, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, right, as he arrives at Cherry Capital Airport on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Traverse City, Michigan.

Biden's senior staff is monitoring the situation, and the president "wants to do whatever he can to be supportive," she said.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke and freelance writer John Barnes contributed.