Farming family balances rural past and suburban present
By MATTHEW HANSEN
Jun. 16, 2018
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Jerry Rohwer takes one hand off the steering wheel and points out his truck window.
We used to farm this ground for the Warren family, he says. Now it's a water treatment plant.
He drives a while and points again. Used to farm this, too. Now it's new houses surrounding Blue Sage Elementary, a brand-new grade school.
Driving northeast, to Elkhorn-area land where the Rohwers long rented ground, grew corn and soybeans, and put up hay.
192nd and Center, now a Kum & Go. 180th and Pacific, now a Hy-Vee. Near 168th and Dodge, a Scheels inside a shopping center.
A hospital. A Hilton Garden Inn hotel. A dozen new neighborhoods scattered all over Elkhorn with new houses and freshly mowed grass and names like The Prairies.
"You see a housing development," says Alan Rohwer, Jerry's kid brother. "I see something else. I see that and I think, 'Here's where the spring was on the side hill. Here's where we dug that ditch. Here's where the farmstead used to sit.'"
The Omaha World-Herald writes the Rohwer family is one of the last farm families on 204th Street, one of the final few trying to straddle the fuzzy line between this area's rural past and suburban present.
These farmers of 204th Street stop tractors at stoplights and have grown used to getting the middle finger from Subaru drivers. They got rid of their cattle after a car barreled into one of their fences — they worried that another broken fence and a herd of cattle getting out could end in an accident and a lawsuit.
These farmers of 204th Street own 190 acres of land, not far from the invisible Elkhorn-Millard border and not far from a school named Rohwer Elementary in honor of a distant relative.
This farmland seems like a winning lottery ticket because it might fetch $40,000 or $50,000 an acre if or when they sell it to a developer.
They know that's serious money. They know it's inevitable, though they don't like to think about closing the book on five generations of Rohwers who have farmed in west Omaha — or west of Omaha — since the Civil War.
They know it. And yet.
"You would hate to part with it just for the money," says Lloyd, the family patriarch who at 89 still plants and harvests. "There are things you ..." but he pauses. "Money's not ..." and he pauses again.
To most Omahans, land is a commodity, a thing to be bought, sold and built upon.
To the Rohwers, this land is near where Lloyd's relatives ran the first combine in the county during the Great Depression. The land is miles from where his granddaddy built a barn before they tore it down to build an interstate.
This land on 204th Street is where Lloyd got his start, and where Jerry and Alan got theirs, too.
It's an annual profit engine, sure, so long as the rains come and the corn doesn't wilt. It is problems to be solved and headaches to be had and well-grown crops to be celebrated.
They have dug into this land, sculpted it, cursed it, grown up with it, grown old with it.
This land is something that is hard to explain to a non-farmer.
"It's hard to believe that we don't view this as a golden ticket," Jerry says and laughs. "But we really don't."
"People don't understand. Cash out, put a couple million dollars in your pocket, go on with life, right?" Alan said. "Well, my life is farming. My life is this land."
It is hard to envision it now, but the Rohwer family originally settled near 108th and Pacific. The German immigrants eventually owned a farmhouse and a big barn and 200 acres near there.
Lloyd's grandpa Henry saw the writing on the wall way back in the early 20th century — Omaha was already spreading toward their original farm — so he bought two additional farms on what's now 204th Street.
"He was safe out here," Lloyd says.
And the farming Rohwers of 204th Street were safe for a long time. Lloyd, born in a farmhouse on this land on Jan. 1, 1929, eventually inherited the family land from his father and improved it. The family added a second home on the property.
His sons Jerry and Alan both broke into the family business as young, hungry farmers, renting as many as 2,400 acres of nearby ground in the late '80s.
Yes, Lloyd could see the Woodmen Tower from his east-facing windows on a clear day — a constant reminder that Omaha loomed. And yes, the nearby families started to sell, slowly at first, when the family's final farmer retired or went to the Great Pasture in the Sky.
But it was easy enough to ignore until those gradual sales became more common in the 21st century. Developers needed land to build houses for people who desperately wanted to live in Elkhorn's quality school district and get some real estate square footage bang for their buck. And as more and more people moved to the area, they needed gas stations and grocery stores, desired restaurants and nearby doctors.
Now, Jerry drives a tractor through 10 stoplights to reach one of the family's rented fields in Elkhorn. Now, they try to move the farm equipment really early in the day, or really late, so as not to raise the ire of suburban drivers unaccustomed to having to slow down for a tractor bumping along a four-lane city road.
Now, there is a new neighborhood under construction right behind the Rohwer land. Now the farmers of 204th Street are being rapidly boxed in by development from every direction.
The Rohwers tell me, over and over, that this development does not make them angry. They say they completely understand it, and in some way are a part of it. Alan lives in a new subdivision south of the farm. Jerry likes a good meal at a nearby restaurant and a quick trip to Walmart as much as anyone.
They say they are trying to be realistic, trying to make future decisions with their eyes wide open.
The farmers of 204th Street have met with multiple developers. They have debated the various tax implications of the various ways in which they could give up the land, either selling it for cash or spinning the proceeds into the acquisition of more ground farther west or north.
But Lloyd is nearly 90. His son Jerry is 64 and son Alan is 56.
The next generation of Rohwers, 10 boys and no girls, doesn't include a single farmer.
"Do we really want to go 80 miles away and start over?" Alan asks as he sits with Lloyd and Jerry at a picnic table. His father shakes his head no. So does his older brother.
"It could be a week," Alan says of a sale. "It could be 10 years. It's kind of like we hold the cards. If we go into another recession, we wait it out."
Lloyd, who is wearing a weathered Asgrow seed cap, shakes his head again.
"Until we decide which direction we're going from here, there's not much point of making a decision," he says.
Alan glances at his father.
"People don't get the love for that field," he says, pointing at the land behind Lloyd's house. "We have found arrowheads on this farm. Freaking mastodons probably walked on this farm. That's the stuff that is hard to part with."
Jerry nods and tries to find the silver lining.
"Maybe they will get as much enjoyment living on this piece of ground as we have," he says.
Lloyd raises his eyebrows.
"They will never realize!" the 89-year-old patriarch says. His voice goes up an octave. "That's the point! Do any of these people know the background of this? They have no clue!"
"To them it's a paved street and a sewer," Alan agrees.
"Sometimes," Lloyd says, quieter now, "people do not realize where they are."
Then the old farmer in the old seed cap and his two farming sons fall silent as they sit together on the picnic table outside the farmhouse where Lloyd was born. The wind rustles the trees. A cellphone tower looms to the west.
It is quiet, save for the constant hum of midmorning traffic zooming by on 204th Street.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com