Sweet cherries, bitter politics: Two farm stands and the nation’s divides

By Neil MacFarquhar

The two farm stands lie just 12 miles apart along Route 31, a straight, flat road running through a bucolic wonderland of cherry orchards and crystalline lakes in northwestern Michigan.

Yet when one stand instituted a no mask, no service rule last July and the other went to court to combat the state’s mask mandate, they set in motion a split that still ripples across Antrim County.

Linda McDonnell, a retiree who began summering in the area 20 years ago, used to pop into Friske Farm Market regularly to treat herself to a few doughnuts. She loved watching them emerge piping hot from the kitchen, and delighted in their soft, chewy interiors beneath a crunchy outer layer. Then Friske’s joined the outcry against masks.

“Oh, my God, I do miss them, but I will not go there because of the politics,” said McDonnell, 69, a former schoolteacher. “They will not get my business.”

On the other side, Randy Bishop eyes the King Orchards farm stand with similar rancor.

The white-bearded Bishop, sometimes called the “Rush Limbaugh of Antrim County,” abandoned long-distance trucking during the 2009 recession and currently hosts a talk radio show. He will boycott King’s forever, he said, “along with other progressive, communist business owners in this county.”

Differences that had always simmered beneath the surface were inflamed by the coronavirus pandemic and pushed many people in places like Antrim County into their tribal corners. Now the molten flow of anger over the presidential election and virus mitigation measures is hardening into enduring divisions over activities as simple as where people buy their fruit.

“Political divisions have infiltrated other parts of people’s lives a lot more than they used to,” said Larry Peck, 68, a retired oil company executive. “Choosing where you go, choosing where you shop, choosing all the things that your life interacts with that used to be not political now are a lot more political.”

Antrim County, population 23,324, is known for its chain of 14 long, narrow, sometimes turquoise lakes spilling into Lake Michigan. The abundant water tempers the climate and, combined with the low, cigar-shaped hills, creates ideal conditions to grow fruit.

Cherries in particular dominate 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 roadside signs spell out greetings like “Have a cherry day!”

Friske’s and King’s are two of the most popular farm stands — both low, red, wooden barnlike structures with white trim. Friske’s, which bills itself as “Not Your Average Fruit Stand,” features the Orchard Cafe, a bakery and a store stuffed with curios as well as everything needed to make pie. King’s is more homespun, with apples displayed in wooden baskets; customers are encouraged to pick their own fruit from the orchards.

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

When the state Supreme Court nullified a series of the governor’s COVID-related executive orders in October, it effectively tossed out her mask mandate and made the lawsuit moot. Michigan’s health department issued a mask directive, which the Friske Farm Market defied until the state threatened to revoke its business license.

The Friskes turned to Facebook to explain their position in videos that attracted both zealous supporters and harsh critics. An area newspaper profiling the ruckus dredged up the archconservative political past of Richard Friske, who died in 2002; he bought the family orchards some 60 years ago after serving in Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.

Jon R. Friske, 23, a member of the third generation to run the farm, said the family anticipated being attacked for making masks voluntary. More online warriors fired nasty broadsides than regular customers, he insisted.

“It is cancel culture, that is all it is — they did not agree with what we were doing so they desperately tried to muddy our reputation and discredit us,” he said. “They come after us in the comments and call us ‘Grandma killers.’ Whatever they want to throw at us frankly leaves no room for personal responsibility and personal accountability, and that is not what America is all about.”

By comparison, King Orchards made masks obligatory after Whitmer issued her executive order in July. The farm stand constructed a hand sanitizer station in the gravel parking lot and distributed free masks.

Months later, the Biden campaign released a commercial about the negative effects of climate change on fruit farming that featured three generations of the King family in their orchards. (John King, the patriarch, moved to the area from downstate in 1980 to take up farming and bought the Route 31 farm stand in 2001.)

“For us it wasn’t about the party line or our personal politics, it was about being an advocate for mitigating climate change,” said Juliette King McAvoy, King’s daughter. Still, the Republican-controlled state Senate took the unusual step in April of blocking her appointment to the Michigan Cherry Committee.

Area regulars chose sides, arguing endlessly over freedom versus public health. Both fruit stands claimed that they gained customers, even if some stormed away, while the need to eat at home drove a sales boom. Last month, King Orchards dropped its mandatory mask policy after the state did.

But matters did not end with the masks.

Vocal residents had also taken sides in a nagging battle over the results of the presidential vote in Antrim County. A human error in programming some of the Dominion voting machines in the county resulted in several thousand votes for Donald Trump being attributed to Joe Biden.

Although the mistake was caught immediately and corrected, it prompted one of the longest-running lawsuits over the results, with Trump cheering from the sideline.

While court proceedings unrolled in the background, vaccines became the next yardstick for measuring which friends to keep and which businesses to frequent as daily life inched away from the pandemic.

Joyce Brodsky, 69, a painter and retired art teacher, spent the pandemic at home, occasionally passing time with a neighbor, a former auto salesperson, who also stayed isolated in his lakeside house, festooned with a large Trump sign.

She tried to not let it irk her, telling herself that many Trump banners on barns in the area were even larger. When her neighbor attempted to rattle her by talking about politics, she steered the conversations to his photo collages or other subjects, and she felt like the two of them were secure inside their COVID-free bubble.

They took regular bike rides together until he returned from a trip to Florida, when she asked whether he had been vaccinated. He would never get vaccinated, he told her, suggesting that she had no right to ask.

“Our core values were not aligning at all,” said Brodsky, who stopped the bike rides at that point. “Why would you not follow the science?”

Antrim County is the kind of place where it takes decades to be considered a local. The auto executives, assembly workers, teachers and others who eventually retire to their second homes from downstate Michigan remain outsiders. Residents who survive off the short summer tourist season call visitors “fudgies” because they frequent the fudge shops, and the retirees “permie-fudgies.”

The pandemic brought a new breed: younger tech-savvy entrepreneurs from as far away as California who could work from home. They arrived with families and paid for houses in cash, fueling resentments.

In this county, Republicans have long controlled virtually every elected office. Still, a local judge, a former Republican politician, dismissed the case alleging fraud in the presidential election on May 18, saying that the requested state audit had been conducted.

Yet the fighting continues. The county commissioners, meeting on Zoom, spend hours listening to angry residents. At a recent meeting, one resident decried the fact that the commissioners were getting sucked into false allegations that made the county a “laughingstock.” Another said it was a proven fact that the county’s voting machines could be programmed to flip ballots.

The local resident who sued and his lawyer are widely expected to appeal. Supporters organized a $20-per-head fundraiser on a recent Saturday. The speakers included Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, who continues to sell the false claim that Trump won the election.

The venue for the fundraiser? Friske Farm Market.

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