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LEAD grad travels to Colombia

LEAD grad travels to Colombia

NORFOLK, Neb. -- Sometimes it is good for those who teach about making their living off the land to check out what others are doing.

That was part of what motivated a Northeast Community College ag instructor to spend a month earlier this summer in Latin America.

Tee Bush said there is nothing quite like hands-on experience, working side-by-side with people of different mindsets, resources and climates. Bush was invited to spend a month in Colombia so she could see firsthand how they raise produce at a hotel where she lived while she worked in the gardens.

While staying in the fifth largest country in Latin America, Bush was able to see how the hotel owner, Ivan Castrillon, and his workers conduct their own version of urban agriculture, which is one of the newest fields of study Northeast offers.

Bush began working at Northeast in 2019. She previously taught at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. The Colombian hotel, La Hauerta, where she worked is near Calima Lake in the mountains, about two hours from the Pacific Coast.

Northeast President Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College, said she is inspired by Bush’s ambitions.

“Changes are always happening in agriculture from water conservation to new hybrids. I’m sure Tee will have some innovative ideas and knowledge that she will bring to her students from her trip,” Barrett said.

Bush was introduced to the opportunity through the Nebraska LEAD (Leadership, Education, Agriculture Program). As part of the program for those who work or promote agriculture, she was introduced to the Colombian hotel in January 2023. The property’s focus is on regenerative agriculture, with everything organic.

“I wanted to find out, ‘How do they do that in the tropics?’ I know how we do it in the temperate zones. What’s different?” Bush asked.

She learned one of the major differences is the tropics have a 365-day growing season. The region has different soil -- it is much more acidic and volcanic. It has a different elevation, being in the mountains, along with a different weather pattern.

“When we are in El Nino and we are getting rain, they are in drought. So for the last three years, they have not used supplemental water on their garden. And the first week I was there, we had to hand water.”

The region where Bush was at in Colombia was still far enough north in the topical zone that it was considered summer.

The garden is about 2 to 3 hectares. Each hectare is about 2.5 acres. The garden included a variety of produce, with everything used in the restaurant. Guests may also purchase produce.

Some of the tropical fruit that is grown would not be recognized in Nebraska, such as lulo, which is used in drinks. They grow field corn, and it is used to make arepas, which are like corn patties. Other crops are onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, cucumbers, pumpkins and tomatoes.

So with a 365-day growing year, do they replant some items and get two growing seasons?

Not really. Bush said the hectares are split into lots or terraces, like how the Incas farmed the same region hundreds of years ago. It not only helps prevent erosion, but it helps to conserve water.

“These terraces are in the process of being developed into a rotational process,” Bush said. “That is something that I helped them with.”

The hotel included several housekeepers, four or five chefs, about five young people who were waiters or waitresses who also performed other tasks.

Almost all the hotel’s business took place on weekends. Vacations are primarily on the weekends and finances are challenging for most Colombians. The government schedules most holidays on Mondays, ensuring most vacations are taken then.

“While I was there, we had two big holidays on Mondays. And the hotel was filled full from Thursday to Monday night.”

 The hotel had 18 rooms. It might be a little different than the U.S. because most of the rooms had up to three beds. Bush slept in a king-sized bed and said it was the nicest hotel she stayed at in Latin America.

“They can put a whole family in one room, easily,” she said.

The hotel did have hot water, which is unusual. Bush said she only had one day when there was no hot water. Each room had like a widow’s balcony. There is no air control in each room. Guests used curtains and a sliding glass door like a widow’s balcony to control the air and conditions.

There was no air conditioning. The hottest it ever got during the time Bush was there was 85 degrees.

“The 85 degrees only feels hot for about two hours during the day. In the morning, the air will be only about 65 degrees, but the humidity will be about 95%. You walk out and think, ‘It’s nice and cool,’ but you immediately start sweating.”

“They have chickens, sheep, pigs and cows for food and milk. While I was there, they butchered a hog and they butchered a sheep for my going away party,” she said.

Bush said it was a worthwhile experience, helping each other to learn.

“We had a lot of conversations. They do so many things, like the Japanese method of composting called bokashi. I helped him to make a giant pile of compost and I helped them to turn it every day while I was there. They also produce a prebiotic or probiotic food source for the animals that was fermented. This was super fascinating. They use soil from the forest that had mold in it. They also used corn bran and molasses and mixed it up by hand and then sealed it up. It fermented for 30 days and then they feed it to the animals.”

Typical meals at the hotel included fruit for breakfast, such as bananas and papayas. It also included eggs or “arepas” and cheese. Sometimes there would be sourdough bread, along with coffee or hot chocolate.

Lunch for workers like Bush would be some type of protein, including fried pig skin that would be cooked like bacon. There usually was a salad that included lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes. There also would be plantains, or tostones, which are smashed, fried plantains.

Chicken is the most popular protein served to the workers. Fish also is popular, including tilapia. The fish were grown in a pond, and then the water changed periodically, with dirty water applied to the garden.

Bush grew up on a ranch in the Sandhills. She has an undergraduate, master’s and doctorate, all from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She originally planned to study architecture at UNL.

“I didn’t even know what horticulture was. I had just taken a horticulture science class and ended up getting very lucky with a teacher who was very engaging. He was a great storyteller and it just kind of sucked me into liking plants.”


Now she hopes to provide similar inspiration to young students.



PHOTO ID: Tee Bush.