A deadly crash sidelined a Four Corners farm family. Neighbors are making sure there is a harvest.
This story was originally published in The Colorado Sun.
As the Jaws of Life pried open the crumpled wreckage of the Rohwer’s Farm GMC Sierra to rescue family members, their community was rallying to help them as word quickly spread of the early morning crash on a highway just outside Durango.
It was market day, and many were on that same road into town.
“About 12 other vendors passed by the crash and were visibly shaken,” Durango Farmers Market Manager Melanie Gonzales said, adding that one woman called her in tears, so upset she’d pulled off the road.
“A lot of people saw it (wreckage),” Gonzales said. “Their (market) space was empty, and it’s a large space. And the unknown. It was a really hard market.”
The feelings of devastation, though, quickly turned to resolve and at 9 a.m. the next day, friends, fellow farmers, market vendors and customers began to organize.
They were going to “catch this family in a safety net” focused on tending to the farm, financial assistance and providing meals, Gonzales said.
By that time, they had some details: The four family members were headed to the market, hauling a trailer loaded with seedlings and produce when their pickup was struck head-on by a Ford F-150 that had drifted over the center line of U.S. 160 near Hesperus, about 12 miles west of Durango. The driver of the Ford had fallen asleep at the wheel, the Durango Herald reported.
The family matriarch, Judy Rohwer, 73, died at the scene. Her daughters Heidi and Angela Rohwer and grandson Zackery Berg were injured, and it would be weeks, if not months, before they could resume the farm duties that they shared.
I know so many people that have said they went to weed or they rescued seedlings. It’s really important to live in a community where we have each other’s back and we’re witnessing that now and it’s inspiring.Andrew Schafer , Cedar Mesa Ranch
But the farm in Pleasant View, northwest of Cortez, couldn’t wait. Plants were growing and a few greenhouse crops were ready for harvest. Some seedlings and produce from the crashed trailer could be rescued. The 10 sheep were ready for shearing, and the broiler chickens for processing. Weeds needed to be pulled and irrigation lines checked. Greenhouse doors needed to be opened and closed at night as the season changed.
That safety net, though, soon stretched the 70 miles from Durango to Pleasant View and beyond. Farmers from as far as northern New Mexico pitched in to help, as extension agents from LaPlata and Montezuma counties joined forces to organize volunteer labor.
The Pleasant View Fire Department that Angela and Heidi have volunteered with for 14 years and where Angela is chief and Heidi is the emergency medical services captain, helped load plants into trailers and is organizing a benefit dinner.
Donations poured into a GoFundMe and two bank accounts.
“I just want to express my overwhelming gratitude to everyone,” Heidi said a couple of days after returning to the farm from two weeks in a Denver hospital. “I feel overwhelmed by the response. It’s the only word I have for it.”
The family moved to the farm in Pleasant View in 2000 and kept it as a farm although they worked other jobs. Heidi, though, wanted to grow vegetables and sell them at a farmers market instead of working for someone else.
She and her six siblings were raised on a farm in northern Utah and had learned to garden, tend to and butcher animals and preserve food.
She knew it would be hard to make a living on a farm so she took a job at a nursery and learned everything she could about starting plants. She began to sell at the Cortez Farmers Market in 2006 and by 2008 had quit her nursery job so she and her mom could turn Rohwer’s Farm into a business.
It’s done nothing but grow since then.
In 2009, they switched to selling at the Durango Farmers Market and have been loyal vendors there ever since.
Her dad, who wasn’t a vegetable farmer but helped with the animals, died in 2011.
Angela was working for Southwest Seed in nearby Dolores when she decided to quit and join the farm full time in 2016.
And in 2020, Judy’s grandson Zachery Berg joined the crew as he finished high school online during the pandemic. Zach, now 20, became a full-time partner on the farm.
They’ve added greenhouses, experimented with plant varieties and become specialists at drying and smoking peppers. They, like all farmers in the region, have dealt with drought and late freezes.
Judy had stepped away from field work in recent years but was the family’s chief cook and went to the market with them every week, Heidi said. She posted some of her recipes on the farm website.
The others divided up the work according to skills: Heidi was in charge of planting, crop rotation, irrigation and managing the flock of sheep; Angela oversees the farm equipment, maintenance and welding and also handles planting, weeding and packaging produce during growing season, and Zack has spent the past couple of years learning all about the farm.
When market season arrives, they work together to prepare seedlings, package produce and load the trailer.
That’s why the entire farm team was together in the truck headed to market May 21. They’d driven nearly 60 of the 70 miles to Durango when the crash occurred just after 6 a.m.
Heidi, who was in the front passenger seat, said she clearly remembers everything from the crash, and that her EMT training kicked in immediately.
Trapped by the crushed dashboard, she twisted on a broken hip to check her mother and nephew in the backseat. Her mother, who usually slept on the ride to Durango, appeared to be sleeping peacefully but she had no pulse.
Heidi said in a statement shortly after the crash that the family is grateful that Judy did not suffer.
Angela and Zack were also injured but help soon arrived.
“It was different being on the other end of firefighters bringing the Jaws of Life to get me out,” she said. “I think I have a little bit better perspective of what our patients are going through.”
Angela had a shoulder injury and bruising and gashes on her leg but was released from the hospital soon after the crash.
Zack had two broken vertebrae and is in a back brace but is able to help around the house, according to a family newsletter.
Heidi had a shattered ankle and her femur, though it didn’t break, pushed into and broke her hip and pelvis. She was flown to Swedish Hospital in Denver, where she underwent three surgeries.
Heidi returned home June 4 but it will be at least six weeks before she can put weight on either foot.
“My right foot — the ankle was close to not being salvageable and it could take up to two years for it to heal,” she said. “The doctor said my hip and pelvis went together nicely, but I also have soft tissue damage.”
She has not been able to go into the fields in her wheelchair because of pain, but she said she’s OK with that.
“I tend to be overly controlling about the farm and I’ve prayed that I could let go of some control,” she said. “Other people are doing it (the work) because they love us and for me that’s good enough. I’m feeling OK about it, although I do miss it.
“I just want to be able to go pick a cucumber and eat it off the vine.”
La Plata County Extension Agent Darrin Parmenter was on the phone with Gonzales, the market manager, throughout the day of the crash and they arranged the Sunday morning Zoom call that launched the support work.
Parmenter would assess the needs at the farm and find volunteers with the needed skills; Gonzales would handle publicity, coordinate fundraising and help arrange for Rohwer farm produce to be sold at the next few markets.
Friends and neighbors who understand the value of food rescued what they could from the crashed produce trailer, gathered fresh produce and sold it at the market on May 28.
Gonzales said all the produce and many of the seedlings sold. People also made donations at the market.
Gonzales said she set a fundraising goal of $250,000 after speaking with other farmers about what it would take to replace farm income for a season and adding in medical expenses not covered by insurance, travel expenses for family and follow up appointments and long-term medical care.
So far, the GoFundMe has raised more than $75,000; Gonzales did not have totals for the bank accounts, and the benefit dinner is set for June 16.
Emily Lackard of the Montezuma County Extension Office would set up a meal train website and help at the farm.
Volunteers with the Pleasant View Fire Department pitched in where they could, although they also suddenly found themselves without two of their key members.
Acting Chief Dean Ives said they are managing but it’s a “great loss” to have Angela and Heidi out as they are a big part of the daily workings of the department.
“We have a lot of dedicated people in our fire department and everybody’s stepped up to make sure we can provide the service to our community,” he said.
Those who volunteered to help the Rohwers were divided up by their skills — people who could handle irrigation systems, those who knew when to open and close greenhouses, and those who could do the hard work of weeding.
Parmenter drove to Denver to meet with Heidi at the hospital the day after the crash. He said he took four pages of notes. Then he visited the farm.
“Heidi is the farmer — the one who manages the plants,” he said. “Every farmer is different and has their own techniques and methods. Some of that stuff was in her brain and I just had to get it on paper.”
So far, he’s worked with volunteer crews of about 15 people in the fields on the two Fridays since the crash. Other volunteers have done specific chores on other days.
How long will it go on?
“My expectation is that we will continue to herd the cats,” Parmenter said. “I want them (family) to focus on the farm whenever they’re ready. In July, we won’t need so many volunteers, but we’ll have to come back come harvest season.
“This was a traumatic event, with traumatic injuries. There is zero expectation on my part that they will be farming this year, but they are stubborn women. Having their guidance at the farm is huge.”
Andrew Schafer of the Cedar Mesa Ranch in Dolores was the volunteer who went to shear Heidi’s sheep on Memorial Day weekend. He didn’t know the family personally, only through friends in the agricultural community.
“I don’t feel like I have a lot of skill sets, but I do shear professionally,” Schafer said. “Heidi had been shearing those sheep herself, but it’s nearly June so I’m thinking we’d better get them shorn. I had a skill that somebody needed.”
It was only a couple of hours of his time and he was happy to be among the volunteers who stepped forward.
“The response and support have been mind boggling to watch,” he said. “I know so many people that have said they went to weed or they rescued seedlings. It’s really important to live in a community where we have each other’s back and we’re witnessing that now and it’s inspiring.”
How to help
Various organizations have mobilized to help the Rohwer family, including organizing a GoFundMe campaign. People wishing to donate directly can send checks made out out to Lynndee Beller For Benefit of (FBO) the Rohwers to TBK Bank , 259 W. 9th St., Durango, CO, 81301. An account also has been established at First National Bank and checks made out to the bank with Rohwer written in memo line can be sent to 2258 E. Main St., Cortez, CO 81321
Farm volunteers can sign up at SignUp.com
A benefit dinner and auction is planned for June 16. Find details at the Pleasant View Fire Department Facebook page