NORTHFIELD — President Joe Biden kicked off a tour of rural America at a hog farm just north of Northfield on Wednesday, seeking support for his agenda in parts of the country where his party has increasingly struggled for votes.

"When rural America does well, when Indian country does well, we all do well," Biden said, speaking in a chilly machine shed in front of a large American flag at Dutch Creek Farms in rural Dakota County.

Biden, making his fourth trip as president to Minnesota, spoke to an audience near the college town as war rages in the Middle East, and his visit drew attention from protesters both at the site and in Minneapolis.

A group of protesters holding up "Ceasefire" placards, invoking the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, stood a short distance from the farm on a gravel road. Biden immediately addressed the conflict in Gaza, acknowledging the safe passage of some wounded Palestinians and foreign nationals, including Americans, from Gaza into Egypt.

"This is the result of intense and urgent American diplomacy with our partners in the region," Biden said. "We've all seen the devastating images from Gaza [of] Palestinian children crying out for lost parents."

He also reiterated Israel's "responsibility to defend its citizens."

The billed reason for Wednesday's trip was to spotlight farmers who are leaning on $5 billion in recent federal spending to improve sustainability and offer producers a competitive leg up in new markets.

"The money is there to help farmers and ranchers tackle the climate crisis through climate smart agriculture and cover crops," Biden said.

The president also referenced the economic plight in rural America, noting shuttered factories and towns hollowed out after jobs were moved overseas.

"Over the past few decades, these communities lost more than jobs," Biden said. "They lost their sense of dignity, opportunity, pride. My plan is about investing in rural America."

'Farmers need some kind of incentive'

Prior to Biden's address, farmers, ag industry leaders and rural development officials mingled in the shed, discussing the federal spending that ranges from broadband expansion to increasing the number of small and medium-sized meat-processing plants to so-called "green" farming practices, such as no-till and cover-cropping.

Kathy Zeman, a certified organic livestock farmer from Nerstrand, Minn., said many nearby farmers are tilling their fields after this fall's harvest.

Farmers in her area are dealing with "severe soil erosion," Zeman said, so the money should help "those farmers who need some kind of an incentive."

In his appeal to expand marketing opportunities for livestock producers, Biden invoked the plight of the Kluvers, the family farmers who hosted him. During the early days of the pandemic, when large slaughterhouses closed temporarily, the family was forced to sell hogs to avoid euthanizing the animals.

"It happened to Brad [Kluver] when processing plants shut down during the pandemic, and he had to rely on social media to sell his hogs," Biden said.

Phillips subplot

Biden's visit to Minnesota came a few days after Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, 54, announced a longshot primary challenge against the president anchored by concerns about Biden's age and poll numbers.

Biden, 80, is running for a second White House term, and leading Democrats in Minnesota have continued to support the president in the face of Phillips' challenge.

Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Dave Hann framed Biden's visit as a reaction to Phillips' primary challenge.

"It is becoming increasingly more obvious that both Democrats and Republicans know that if the election were held today, Biden would lose," Hann said in a statement.

A farm bill needed

Pertinent to farmers and ranchers, Congress missed a September deadline to reauthorize the highly influential farm bill, a Great Depression-era omnibus that undergirds everything from crop insurance to food stamps. Observers hope Congress greenlights the massive bill before year's end.

"I appreciate that he's recognizing that rural America needs help with funding to either create or maintain revenue streams or livelihood," said Dan Glessing, a Waverly farmer and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. "We need options."

"After the harvest comes in," Gov. Tim Walz said at the event, "you have one job in rural America: Get us a farm bill."

'Abandon Biden'

Following his speech, Biden boarded Marine One, which departed from a neighboring field back to the Twin Cities.

But many leaving the farm by car drove past the rally gathered about a mile west of the property.

Earlier in the day, a group of Muslim leaders from the Twin Cities launched an "Abandon Biden" campaign, saying they have given up on the president due to his handling of the situation in Gaza.

The leaders say they will encourage Muslim Americans to vote for other presidential candidates because Biden did not call for a cease-fire by a Tuesday deadline set by the group.

Also speaking in front of the federal courthouse in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Taher Herzallah of American Muslims for Palestine said he lost family members this week in Israel's airstrikes in northern Gaza.

"Our message is very clear: No cease-fire, no vote in 2024," he said.

Later in the afternoon, more than 600 people attended a second protest outside the federal courthouse. The protesters marched through downtown Minneapolis, blocking streets as they chanted. Marchers were met by dozens of police officers blocking the 3rd Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River.

Rural voters shift right

While farmers once formed the backbone of Democratic politics in rural Minnesota, they've increasingly voted with the GOP, particularly as party lines have hardened along geographic boundaries between rural and urban communities.

In a fundraising email sent out Tuesday, GOP U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad, a southern Minnesota farmer, lambasted Biden over inflation and environmental programs, saying the Biden administration has pursued a "war on production agriculture."

Dutch Creek Farms resides in DFL Rep. Angie Craig's congressional district, but Craig did not attend Wednesday's visit, as she was casting votes in Washington.

According to a White House pool report, reporters traveling with the president switched aircraft at the airport following a bang and the smell of smoke. An administration official relayed that an "electrical issue" on one of the helicopters triggered preventive alarms and an automatic "fire suppressant," but there was never a safety issue on the aircraft.

After the Northfield visit, the president attended a campaign reception at Minneapolis Event Centers. There, he exchanged words with a protester later identified as Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and its Rabbinical Council.

"As a rabbi, I need you to call for a cease-fire right now," Rosenberg said.

"I think we need a pause," Biden responded. "A pause means give time to get the prisoners out."

Staff writers Hunter Woodall, Matt McKinney and Louis Krauss contributed to this report.