NORFOLK, Neb. – Grants from the National Science Foundation and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will help with the startup costs of an urban agriculture degree program at Northeast Community College. The grants have a combined value of more than $700,000.
The urban farm plot will be located on a 10-acre strip on the east side of Victory Road just north of the Norfolk Regional Center. Dr. Trentee “Tee” Bush, horticulture instructor at Northeast, is the advisor and lead instructor for the program. She joined the Northeast faculty in August of 2019.
“When I first got here, former Dean Corinne Morris and I were trying to create a program that would unite the agriculture and horticulture departments a little more closely,” Bush said. “That conversation happened just previous to Covid, which was a really perfect time because we noticed worldwide, or at least across the US, people started gardening more and they started staying home and figuring out how they could solve their own food problems and their own aesthetic problems.”
Bush said the new associate of applied science degree is about half agriculture and half horticulture. Students will take horticulture classes such as horticulture science, plant propagation and nursery and green house management and agriculture offerings including soils, pest management, entomology, and advanced fertility. Electives may include classes in landscape design or other areas in which the student has a special interest.
The plot will include some educational applied research projects, and Northeast Ag Program Director Jill Heemstra said some are nearly ready to implement.
“We specifically looked at establishment of buffalo grass in different ways,” she said. “Whether it be seeds or plugs, and how densely you plant the plugs, and just follow those practices so anyone interested in establishing a less intensive lawn can see how that process might play out.”
“And we are also looking at a composting facility,” Heemstra continued. “We will have waste from the college farm and manure from the feedlot. We are going to approach the cafeteria to see about compostable food waste and have demonstrations that help people see what kinds of things you should and shouldn’t put in these compost piles.”
“That site will change all the time and that is the intention of this place,” Bush added. “It’s not going to be something we design in year one, build in year two and then keep it exactly the same. It’s like somebody’s back yard. Every year we might move something. It’s meant to be a living space."
Bush said one of the first activities planned for the site is planting fruit trees as a long-term investment.
“We have some permeable pavers we are going to be testing to see how people can park on permeable pavers. And we’re going to get some kind of high tech fun little toys that will be mobile. We will be able to pick them up and take them with us, including to area high schools.”
Heemstra said two of those high tech “toys” Bush mentioned are a Tertill automatic weeder and a FarmBot robotic raised bed system. Tertill uses height to identify plants from weeds. A FarmBot is an open hardware system that assists with planting, watering, soil testing and weeding.
Another Northeast staff member working with the urban agriculture program is Precision Ag Trainer Courtney Nelson. Nelson’s job ordinarily involves sharing Northeast programming with area high schools and at public venues, so she said she is learning new applications for her skills.
“One of the things we have been trying to get going again is a small tractor with an auto steer system on it,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to see how we can utilize that with the urban farm and with my other job, teaching high schoolers. We also have soil moisture sensors that go three feet into the ground and kick back to our phones or our computers, showing us how much moisture is in the soil. Right now we use those on the college farm in corn and soybean fields, but Tee is going to show us how we can scale that down and use it in smaller plots.”
Bush hopes the community makes use of the new urban farm on the Northeast campus.
“My vision is that this will be a fully public site as long as the public respects that,” she said. “We hope to have informal learning opportunities for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to be out there, 4-H, After Shock and other after school programs.”
“We also hope that we see some older generations taking advantage of it,” she continued. “There could be some physical therapy or geriatric memory care. We also hope to invite some federal and state agencies like the NRD (natural resources districts) and the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), and the Center for Rural Affairs to use this space as an outdoor teaching classroom to show off some of their applied research.”
And it would certainly not only be ag students at the College utilizing the plot.
“I could even see the choir students going outside,” Bush said. “I could see recreation or art students going out there and learning to use outdoor spaces. Imagine Early Childhood Education having a day with a bunch of preschool kids out there, learning how to teach in that space. I don’t want us to ever think of this space as ‘Urban Ag’s Space.’ I want us to think about it as Northeast Community College’s space and any major should be able to be out there.”
Bush encourages students of all ages to consider the urban agriculture program.
“Anybody who has made that shift to really being aware and involved in their own landscape, or if they have reached a stage in life where they are at home more and have a need to be in their outdoor space. I encourage them to explore this,” she said. “They don’t have to get the full degree. They can take a few classes.”
Students interested in learning more about the urban agriculture degree program at Northeast may check online at northeast.edu/degrees-and-programs/urban-agriculture/aas. They may also contact Bush at (402) 844-7388, firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO ID: An aerial view of the 10-acre plot that will house Northeast Community College’s urban agriculture plot.