Everyone has one of those “Come to Jesus” moments when they wonder if what they are doing is God’s plan for them. Such was the case for tonight’s honoree on a hot summer day in the early 1990s. At the time it wasn’t uncommon to start in the dark and put on 300 miles a day during irrigation season. “I remember filling my pickup with $4 a gallon gas and looking down at the holes in my boots because I couldn’t afford new ones thinking, ‘This is really silly.’”
Thankfully Dave Rowe’s family hung on through those tight times and worked hard to improve and expand an operation he was urged to build on his own. Today Dave and Sheila Rowe’s enterprise, Darr Grain, Inc., includes his grandfather’s farm, land originally owned by a great-grandfather, and a number of rented and owned farms, including a couple purchased by an older member of his fraternity to rent to the then “new farmer.”
The Rowe family traces their Dawson County roots to Dave’s great-grandfather Theron Rowe. Born in 1852, he moved to Dawson County from New York state and bought several Dawson County farms south of Cozad in 1903. Family folklore has it that he was a drummer boy in the Civil War, drumming away at the ripe old age of 12.
Grandfather Ted Rowe moved to the Darr area in 1947. He had married Wilma Keller from the Eustis area in the 1930s, and with the exception of spending 1936 in Colorado, they farmed the rest of their lives in and near Dawson County.
Interest in agriculture came from both sides of the family as Dave’s mother, Jenohn Lewis grew up in Omaha. Her grandparents came from the Lewiston area of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and ran a dairy that provided milk to schools in the day. Eventually she met Gayle Rowe while he was stationed in Omaha at SAC Air Force base. They were married and a whole new type of farm life unfolded.
Dave was born on Nov. 14, 1967 in Cozad, the oldest of five children. His siblings include Nickie, Suzie, Derik and Dusty. Growing up the Rowes had a family partnership called 3-R farms that included Dave’s father Gayle, his uncle Terry and grandfather Ted.
The Rowe’s primarily raised hogs with Gayle farrowing the hogs and Terry finishing them. “We had hogs everywhere. We had several buildings and when they were filled, we put the hogs in pens with huts and we even put them up in straw huts at times,” recalls Dave.
Another aspect of growing up was watching Grandpa Ted raise his Corriedale sheep. “They were his passion,” notes Dave. “He went all over the nation with them and won every award you could with sheep.”
Ted was also a great practitioner of the art of the deal. Buyers would arrive at his house and look at the sheep, then go back to the house for coffee, then lunch and maybe even spend the night at the Rowes before finally sealing a deal the next morning.
By the 1980s the hog business wasn’t so profitable and the Rowe’s looked to other enterprises in addition to raising the traditional corn, soybeans and alfalfa of the Platte Valley. “Dad started raising crossbred cattle and later got into Saler’s,” noted Dave.
Dave attended country school at District 16 and he and his classmates grew up benefitting from life in multi-grade classrooms. Life during elementary school was pretty fun on the farm, recalled Dave. “School didn’t start until 9 a.m. so we had the mornings to do chores and then go hunting before heading off to school.”
4-H was an important part of their summers and preparing for the county and state fairs where the Rowe children showed hogs, sheep, cattle and horses.
Summers also meant a lot of hard work irrigating as the family had power units and miles of pipe on fields spread over nearly 70 miles between Elwood, Eustis, Cozad to northwest of Cozad. Then there were the hogs to take care of, too.
When Dave entered Lexington High School, he was active in sports and in the summers that included baseball. “To make baseball practice I often hitched rides back to town with the Purina Feed guys.”
In the days before four-wheelers and ATVs, motorcycles and three-wheelers were often the motorized unit used to irrigate and do distant chores, so Dave also had his share of broken bones growing up.
After a busy four years in high school, playing football, basketball, wrestling and running track, along with competing in FFA contests and serving with the local officer team, Dave graduated with the Lexington High School Class of 1986. He moved on to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he was active in Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
In the meantime, Sheila Sullwold was growing up in rural Buffalo County near the Odessa-Elm Creek area. Her parents, Don and Joyce, farmed and raised cattle and Sheila was an active 4-H beef showman throughout grade school and high school.
She was also involved in sports at Kearney High School, making her mark in volleyball, basketball, track, band and other activities. Graduating with the Class of 1986 she went on to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) receiving both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNL.
But wait, how did Dave and Sheila meet? Believe it or not it wasn’t at the University, but back in high school. Dave and some of his Lexington friends were dragging main in Kearney. “Truth be told I was only 15 and driving on a school permit the first time I saw Sheila and a group of her friends,” notes Dave.
Fast forward to college where they dated off and on. During Dave’s senior year in 1991-92, Sheila was finished with her master’s degree and had moved to Omaha and was managing a doctor’s office.
Armed with his bachelor’s degree in speech communication, which included a minor in Portuguese, Dave had a job offer in Brazil to sell soybeans for the Brazilian government. “Dad asked me, ‘Are you coming home or are you going to do business for the Brazilians?’ I wasn’t sure if I could order a meal in Portuguese at that point, let alone sell soybeans, and decided to come home. I asked Sheila if she would come back to the farm with me,” said Dave, an unusual proposal if there ever was one.
But Sheila said yes, and they were engaged by summer of 1992 and were married Oct. 9, 1993 in Kearney and moved to a house Dave had purchased that summer in Lexington.
Sheila became executive director of Rural Health Partners, Inc., and then Heartland Health Alliance, a rural healthcare cooperative consisting of 32 hospitals in Nebraska. “Our purpose was to coordinate resources to provide health care to our rural communities,” Sheila said.
She worked in the industry for 10 years and then became a part-time stay-at-home Mom for the next crop of Rowes, including Ellie, born in 1998; Mollie, born in 2001; and Mia, born in 2003. Sheila went back to UNK to attain her teaching certificate in order to teach at Lexington Public Schools and has been substitute teaching ever since.
“I loved the idea of working when I wanted and still being on my kids’ school schedule,” she said.
While Dave worked with his Dad after getting his degree, he soon discovered he would be on his own, as his Dad wanted him to earn his own way farming. “I asked, ‘Where’s the handbook? I need Cliff’s notes for farming. But there is no EASY button in farming.’”
To make ends meet the young farmer adopted a number of innovative practices for the mid-90s. He banded herbicide with his cultivator, so he had a one-pass system. Dave noted this saved between 40-60 cents per acre in input costs, which added up! He adopted no-till practices where practical and began expanding his farming operation.
He hauled corn for neighbors for two cents a bushel, bought some old manure spreaders and spread manure all winter long to cut back on fertilizer expenses and ran winter calves for Darr Feedlot. Of course, Murphy’s law often entered into that enterprise, recalls Dave, “Every time it was a holiday, they’d get sick and we’d have to treat them.”
Necessity is the mother of invention and when they were so busy trying to ridge and cultivate everything, he rigged up a little disc that would run behind the pickup to knock down berms as they strung out pipe.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Rowe. “I and another Lexington High School classmate were the only two that grew up on a farm during that 80’s Farm Crisis era, and I was the only one to return home to farm. We didn’t have any money, but it didn’t take much money at that time.”
It did, however, require hours and hours of hard work. Thinking it would be fun to have a place to relax, the Rowes bought a cabin on a lot at Johnson Lake in 1997. “I was too busy to enjoy it and by necessity over the next several years we put down a whole bunch of center pivots in order to have some type of family life. Shortly after that we started putting telephones on the pivots so we could control them. Thankfully we had a banker willing to work with us as one year we put down five pivots, which for us was a lot.”
Now 99 percent of Rowe’s crops are irrigated by center pivot, with just one pivot corner being gravity irrigated.
In the meantime, the Rowe girls were growing up and following in their parents’ footsteps and became active in 4-H. But instead of showing hogs or sheep, they followed their mother’s passion for horses and soon were on the road to 4-H horse shows and of course the county fair. Sheep, however, were never far from the equation, as two orphaned lambs, which Mollie remembers were named Jake and Julie, managed to move into their garage, and Sheila and the girls were on round-the-clock bottle feeding duties. “I don’t think our garage has ever stunk so badly,” notes Mollie.
“One thing I love about moving back to a rural area is having my girls grow up in a close-knit community,” said Sheila. “Lexington provides an extra bonus in affording them to grow up in a small town with a large, diverse population. They have learned to be better people because of their ability to grow up and live alongside others who come from all different backgrounds.”
Ellie is a 2016 graduate of Lexington High School and was involved in a multitude of athletics and activities while there, including the school play and senior trip to Washington, D.C. She is a senior at UNL where she is a member of the Delta Gamma sorority and will graduate as a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine on May 7.
Mollie is a 2019 graduate of Lexington High School and was also involved in a multitude of athletics and activities, including a State Journalism Championship. She is now in her freshman year at UNL where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and Global Studies, focusing on international law, and is a member of the Delta Gamma sorority. She intends to seek a law degree after finishing her undergraduate studies in 2023.
Mia is a sophomore at Lexington High School where she is involved in volleyball, basketball, track, flag corps and Circle of Friends. She is in her eighth year of 4-H and last summer went on the Dawson County 4-H Heritage Tour.
Setting an example for their daughters, Dave and Sheila have been active in their church, their community and a number of regional and state organizations.
Sheila took part in the Dawson Area Development Leadership Program, is a past president and current member of PEO Chapter FS, served on the Parent-Child Center board, and is now on the board of the Lexington Booster Club.
Dave was among the group that helped found the Lexington branch of YMCA of the Prairie, The Orthman Community YMCA, and in the capital campaign that facilitated the multi-million-dollar addition to the Lexington Middle School that included the YMCA. He is the branch vice president and is a past member of the YMCA of the Prairie board that includes the Ys in Holdrege, Lexington and Gothenburg. “The Y project was monumental, we spent the money wisely on a wonderful facility,” said Dave. “The response and membership growth have been such that we need to grow again.”
Other activities include past member of the AKSARBEN Floor Committee with the Ak-sar-ben Coronation Ball, serving as a past president of the LHS Booster Club, a director for the Nebraska Rural Radio Association (KRVN) and past director of the Dawson County Extension Board. Dave is also a graduate of Nebraska’s 36th LEAD class that traveled to Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Dave is currently president of The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District (CNPPID) headquartered in Holdrege, which provides surface water to over 107,000 acres, and owns and operates Lake McConaughy/Kingsley Dam, Johnson Lake and Elwood Reservoir.
He serves on Congressman Adrian Smith’s Ag Advisory Board and on the AFPC Congressional Advisory Committee that operates through Texas A&M to provide constant input on Farm Bill legislation.
The Rowes are very active in Grace Lutheran Church and Sheila notes they love being a part of their church family. Sheila teaches Vacation Bible School, volunteers with the Good News Club, Royal Family Kids Camp and serves on the church board.
Dave has organized and transported clothing for distribution across Guatemala during a trip there and locally makes monthly donations of clothing and miscellaneous items from Express Laundry Center to needed organizations around the area.
Express Laundry is the Rowe’s side business and started after a discussion with a high school friend who had laundries in Omaha. “We started about 10 years ago with an empty building on Frontier Street near Wal-Mart and then when the old gas station on West Highway 30 became available we expanded there.”
For a while they cleaned rugs, rags and aprons, but when Darin Buescher came on board as the Express Laundry manager, they dropped the rug cleaning portion of the business, noted Rowe. In addition to Buescher they have two part-time employees.
With all the Rowe’s scholastic, church and community activities, they have always managed to make time for travel together as a family. Notes Dave, “You need to get out of your comfort zone and experience the world.”
Helping them make quick getaways is the fact that Dave is an instrument-rated pilot. He started taking flying lessons in college and finished with his instrument rating in 2005. He has even convinced daughter Mollie into taking flying lessons.
Their travels have taken them all over the country and Dave notes when Sheila was still working in the health care field, they would work family vacations into her conference schedule. Their most recent family adventure was a trip to Costa Rica over Christmas. While we don’t have a picture, a favorite memory for Mia is seeing her Grandpa Gayle in swim trunks for the first time, and not in jeans and boots.
The three Rowe girls have also embraced world adventures. Ellie spent part of her summer two years ago in Italy and this spring has been selected by UNMC to travel with a group to Jordan.
Mollie also traveled internationally to Costa Rica as part of a trip organized by her high school Spanish Class and Mia will be going to Peru this summer with her high school Spanish class.
While travel is fun, there is much to be said for having fun close to home. In 2000 the Rowes, the Rod Reynolds family, Ryan Shotkoski and Robb and Greg Hanna hosted a Millennium Fireworks show close to their cabins at Johnson Lake. That localized event turned into the first “Light Up the Lake” fireworks show in 2001. Over the past 19 years the annual event has grown so that this year it was estimated that 40,000 people watched the display from vantage points around the lake.
The trend in both Dave and Sheila’s families has been to pass along the farm to multiple generations. The Theron Rowe family received the Ak-Sar-Ben Pioneer Farm Family Award in 2003 and Gustav Sullwold family, Sheila’s ancestors, received their Pioneer Farm Family Award in 2005 for land that had been in the family since 1879.
Today, Dave’s operation is divided between 25 percent soybeans, 25 percent alfalfa, and 50 percent corn. He has two full-time employees, Bobby Keim and Calvin Vontz, along with a number of dedicated part-timers.
Being able to purchase his grandfather’s farmstead and keep it in the Rowe family has also been important to both Dave and Sheila. “Our girls have loved hosting birthday parties at the farm and taking care of their horses, barn cats and other farm animals.”
Among those were Stan and Larry, two spitting llamas, recalls Ellie. “As I’m older I have found it fun bringing my new college friend to the farm and seeing them ride a horse for the first time!”
As a result of all these experiences the Rowe girls have grown to have a sincere appreciation for the ag industry. “I wish people outside of the ag community understood just how much farmers and ranchers care for their livestock. My Uncle Derik treats his cattle like his children and would do anything to keep them healthy.”
Notes Ellie, “I wish non-rural people understood that farmers are working every day to feed the world. It’s a pretty powerful position to produce what keeps the world alive.”
Mia echoes her sister by adding, “I wish they understood that food comes from farms, not the grocery store. There is a lot of time and effort involved.”
Dave notes he didn’t do this by himself. “Without the generations who came before us, none of us would be here. We have also been blessed by being surrounded by great people, family, friends, the community and wonderful co-workers. One of the lessons I learned in college was to surround yourself with smart, capable people and empower them.”