- Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden sees an opportunity in Michigan as the presidential race hits the home stretch.
- In a recent ad appealing to voters in rural Michigan, the Biden campaign featured a local cherry farmer discussing how climate change is hurting his farm.
- It’s part of a larger fight over Michigan, a swing state battleground that flipped for President Trump in 2016, with overwhelming support from rural counties.
- Trump, who won the state by a narrow margin of 10,704 votes, does not mention climate change in his second-term agenda, and has frequently dismissed the issue.
- But many Michigan farmers are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and experts say the message could resonate across the state.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A new Joe Biden campaign ad highlighting how climate change is affecting local farmers aired in Michigan last week, as the campaign continues its fight to win over rural voters in the Midwest battleground state.
The ad features a local Michigan fruit farmer, John King, discussing his concerns over the impacts climate change is having on his farm. “We need leadership to address the problems we’re facing every day so that we can continue to produce food for Americans and the whole world,” he said in the ad.
President Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 by a narrow margin of 10,704 votes, marking the first win for a Republican presidential candidate in the state since 1988, but Biden’s climate change push in Michigan looks to be capitalising on an issue for which the Trump campaign has shown little concern. It is not mentioned in the president’s second-term agenda.
But Michigan farmers statewide are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. A 2019 survey conducted by RABA Research found 63% of Michigan voters believed climate change was affecting agriculture in their area. Because of these concerns and the cultural importance of Michigan’s fruit orchards, experts say the ad’s message could resonate across the state, even in those counties that went for Trump in 2016.
Watch the Biden ad below
King is the co-owner of King Orchards, a fruit orchard located in northern Michigan that specialises in tart cherries, an iconic Michigan fruit. He says he has seen firsthand how the changing climate impacts his crop. Violent storms, heavy rains, and extreme hail are all threats that King said have increased in frequency in recent years, followed by big weather swings in the spring months.
“We can have very warm, unseasonable weather in March, and then have seasonal cold weather in April that freezes the buds that have started to grow prematurely,” King told Insider.
In 2012, a notoriously bad year for Michigan fruit farmers, temperatures in March reached the 80s and stayed there for a couple weeks. At a time when King would typically still be ice fishing, the trees were starting to bloom and leaf out. When the normal temperatures returned in April and May, all the fresh foliage and new blooms froze off.
King, who is 70, said it was the second complete wipeout of his crop in the past 20 years. And while these events aren’t unprecedented, he said they have become more frequent and more severe.
‘That’s what climate change is’
Those observations are supported by research, according to Nikki Rothwell, an extension specialist at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Centre.
She said extreme weather is becoming increasingly common, noting there have been more significant hail events in the past five years than there were in the previous 10.
“That’s what climate change is,” she said. “It’s not exactly a quick change, it’s really that variability.”
Bacterial disease and insects are other threats that have been exacerbated by the warmer and wetter climate in Michigan. But whether or not growers themselves directly attribute those issues to climate change is a different story, and depends largely on where they’re located and their personal experiences.
“There are some farmers that are embracing climate change and how they are going to deal with it on their own farm,” Rothwell said. “And then there are other growers that just say, ‘Oh that’s pretty normal, it’s not really climate change, this is just the things we deal with every year.'”
But she said even the growers who won’t directly point to climate change recognise that things are changing, and that growing crops is becoming more risky over time.
Adapting to change
Acknowledging those changes is as much a result of necessity than anything else. “The industry has to adapt to these changes or they won’t be in business,” said Jeff Andresen, geography professor at Michigan State University and state climatologist.
It’s especially important in Michigan, where the state’s diverse range of crops makes it more susceptible to climate impacts. Unlike its Midwest peers that are dominated by commodity crops like corn, soybean, and wheat, Michigan’s unique geography on the Great Lakes makes it a great place to grow specialty crops, like tart cherries.
“There’s a whole bunch of different crops than the ones we see in the central corn belt,” Andresen said. “The number of impacts of weather and climate is very broad.”
He said those specialty crops are a major part of northern Michigan’s identity, which is why he found the campaign ad to be effective for the area. “It’s a special place, and this tree fruit agriculture is a special piece of that character,” he said. “This area would be so different if that agriculture wasn’t there.”
Barry Rabe, a professor of political science and environmental policy at the University of Michigan, echoed those sentiments. He said he was struck by the ad for a number of reasons.
“Climate is a really hard thing to explain, especially when you’re talking about localised impacts,” he said. “It’s one thing to talk about wildfires or hurricanes, but hitting plants and agriculture is really significant.”
He cites a couple examples of climate change impacts that inspired local action, including damage to forests in British Columbia, Canada, and the loss of maple trees in New Hampshire.
For Michigan, a threat to their tart cherries could do just that.
“Tart cherries are just like this iconic product here,” he said, adding that watching the ad, he could tell these were legitimate Michigan farmers. During a normal year, he’d be heading up north right now, this weekend, to pick cherries or pumpkins at a farm just like King Orchards.
“As a Michigander of now 30 years, it hit me,” he said. “My heart went out for these people, who live and breathe tart cherries, which is a lot of people in this state.”
The Biden campaign ad also stood out from other political advertising he’s been seeing in the state this year, most of which he said has been largely negative.
This particular ad came out of a visit that Jill Biden, Joe Biden’s wife, paid to King Orchards on September 29. She toured the farm and they discussed King’s concerns regarding climate change. Calling the visit productive, he said she listened to their concerns and assured them that the former vice president was concerned as well.
“I’d be bummed if he just uses this ad but then doesn’t actually become more aggressive than his history has been on climate change,” he said. “I’m hoping we can move him to action.”
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