Candy Cherries, Bitter Politics: Two Farm Stands and the Nation’s Divides

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ELK RAPIDS, Michigan – The two farm stands are only 12 miles apart along Route 31, a straight, flat road that runs through an idyllic wonderland of cherry orchards and crystal clear lakes in northwest Michigan.

However, when one booth implemented a no-mask-no-service rule last July and the other went to court to combat the state’s mask mandate, they sparked a split that is still affecting Antrim County.

Linda McDonnell, a retiree who started summer in the area 20 years ago, regularly went to Friske Farm Market for a few donuts. She loved watching them come out of the kitchen piping hot and enjoyed their soft, chewy insides under a crispy outer layer. Then Friske joined the outcry against masks.

“Oh my god, I miss her, but I’m not going there because of politics,” said Ms. McDonnell, 69, a former teacher. “You won’t get my business.”

Randy Bishop, on the other hand, regards the King Orchards farm estate with similar resentment.

White-bearded Mr. Bishop, sometimes referred to as “Rush Limbaugh of Antrim County,” gave up long-distance travel during the 2009 recession and is currently hosting a talk radio show. He will boycott King’s forever, he said, “along with other progressive communist business owners in the district.”

Differences that always simmered beneath the surface were ignited by the coronavirus pandemic and pushed many people into their tribal corners in places like Antrim County. Now the melted anger over the presidential election and virus containment measures has hardened into permanent divisions over activities as simple as buying fruit.

“Political divisions have infiltrated other areas of people’s lives much more than they used to,” said Larry Peck, 68, a retired oil company. “Choosing where to go, where to shop, choosing all of the things your life interacts with that weren’t political today, are much more political.”

Antrim County, with a population of 23,324, is known for its chain of 14 long, narrow, sometimes turquoise lakes that flow into Lake Michigan. The abundant water softens the climate and, together with the low, cigar-shaped hills, creates ideal conditions for fruit growing.

Especially cherries characterize the landscape. Sweet cherries. Sour cherries. Cherry Tree Inn. Cherry Suites Assisted Living. They populate every menu. Pie, of course. Cherry and Chicken Sandwich Wraps. Black letters on street signs spell out greetings like “Have a Cherry Day!”

Friske’s and King’s are two of the most popular farm stalls – both low, red, barn-like wooden structures with white moldings. Friske’s, which calls itself “Not Your Average Fruit Stand,” has the Orchard Cafe, a bakery and shop full of curios and everything needed for making cakes. King’s is homemade, with apples in wooden baskets; Customers are encouraged to pick their own fruit from the orchards.

Last summer, the Friske family sued Governor Gretchen Whitmer, arguing that wearing masks should have remained a personal choice.

When the state’s Supreme Court annulled a number of the governor’s Covid-related executive orders in October, it effectively threw off her mask mandate and made the lawsuit contentious. The Michigan Department of Health issued a mask policy that the Friske Farm Market opposed until the state threatened to revoke its business license.

The Friskes reached out to Facebook to explain their position in videos that attracted both avid supporters and tough critics. A regional newspaper reporting the riot unearthed the arch-conservative political past of Richard Friske, who died in 2002; he bought the family’s orchards about 60 years ago after serving in the German Air Force.

Jon R. Friske, 23, a third generation member who runs the farm, said the family expected to be attacked for voluntarily making masks. More online warriors fired nasty broadsides than regular customers, he emphasized.

“It’s demolition culture, that’s all – they didn’t approve of what we were doing so they were desperate to tarnish our reputation and discredit us,” he said. “They come after us in the comments and call us ‘grandma killers’. Whatever they are accusing us of leaves no room for personal responsibility and personal accountability, and that is not what America is about. “

By comparison, King Orchard made masks mandatory after Ms. Whitmer issued her executive order in July. The farm stand has set up a hand disinfection station on the gravel parking lot and distributed free masks.

Months later, the Biden campaign ran a commercial about the negative effects of climate change on fruit growing, featuring three generations of the King family in their orchards. (John King, the Patriarch, moved from the state to the area to start farming in 1980 and bought the farm stall on Route 31 in 2001)

“It wasn’t about the party line or our personal politics, but about working to curb climate change,” said Juliette King McAvoy, Mr. King’s daughter. Still, in April the Republican-controlled Senate took the unusual step of blocking her appointment to the Michigan Cherry Committee.

The area’s regulars chose a side and argued endlessly over freedom and public health. Both fruit stands claimed to have won customers, though some stormed them while the need to eat at home caused a sales boom. Last month, King Orchards dropped its mandatory mask policy after the state did so.

But it didn’t end with the masks.

Vocal residents had also sided with a gnawing battle for Antrim County’s presidential election results. A human error in programming some of the Dominion voting machines in the county resulted in several thousand votes for Donald J. Trump being attributed to Mr Biden.

Although the mistake was immediately recognized and corrected, it led to one of the longest-running complaints about the results, with Mr. Trump cheering from the sidelines.

While legal proceedings were pending in the background, vaccines became the next yardstick for measuring which friends to keep and which stores to visit while daily life was meters away from the pandemic.

Joyce Brodsky, 69, a retired painter and art teacher, spent the pandemic at home and occasionally spent time with a neighbor, a former car salesman who also stayed in isolation at his lakeside home, adorned with a large Trump sign.

She tried not to be confused by this and told herself that many of the Trump banners on the barns in the area were even bigger. When her neighbor tried to shake her with political talks, she turned the conversations onto his photo collages or other topics, and she felt safe in her Covid-free bubble.

They went on regular bike rides together until he returned from a trip to Florida when she asked if he was vaccinated. He would never get vaccinated, he told her, indicating that she had no right to ask.

“Our basic values ​​did not match at all,” said Ms. Brodsky, who stopped the bike tours at this point. “Why wouldn’t you follow science?”

At Friske’s, many pickups in the parking lot still wear Trump pence bumper stickers, and the donuts attract regulars for breakfast. “We got fat,” joked Brenda Coseo, 62, after she and her husband Chris moved to their summer home in January and for part of the spring to escape the high levels of coronavirus in San Diego, where they usually live .

They liked Friske’s for being more relaxed about the pandemic rules and criticized the fact that so many local restaurants have suffered a severe financial blow due to lockdowns. “It just seemed pretty unjustified,” said Coseo, 63. “I’m not the one who counts Covid deaths, but still.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood agreed. On Route 31 south of Friske, Kim Cook, 53, had opened Grace: A Gallery in an old church with a striking bell tower to sell the works of around 60 local artists.

“I never went in after I found out they didn’t need masks,” said Ms. Cook, who once worked at Friske. However, her own mask requirement resulted in abuse by several customers, including a woman who pounced on her and closed the gallery.

Antrim County is a place that takes decades to be considered a local. The auto managers, assembly workers, teachers, and others who eventually retreat from Michigan to their second homes remain outsiders. Residents who survive outside the short tourist summer season call visitors “fudges” because they visit the fudge shops, and retirees call them “permafudges”.

The pandemic brought with it a new generation: younger tech-savvy entrepreneurs from distant California who could work from home. They arrived with families and paid houses in cash, which fueled resentment.

In this district, Republicans have long controlled virtually every elected office. However, a local judge, a former Republican politician, dismissed the case for fraud in the May 18 presidential election on the grounds that the requested state examination had been carried out.

But the fighting continues. The district officials who meet on Zoom spend hours listening to angry local residents. At a recent meeting, a resident condemned the fact that the commissioners were dragged into false accusations that made the county a “laughing stock”. Another said it was a proven fact that the county’s voting machines could be programmed to flip ballot papers.

The local resident who sued the lawsuit and their attorney are generally expected to appeal. Supporters organized a $ 20 per capita fundraiser on Saturday. Speakers included Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, who continues to sell the false claim that Mr Trump won the election.

The location for the fundraiser? Friske farmers market.