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Trip to Central American Nation Shows Students Another Side of Agriculture

Trip to Central American Nation Shows Students Another Side of Agriculture

NORFOLK, Neb. – Tee Bush has traveled extensively around the world.

Those travels have helped her to meet and establish a bond with a Costa Rican woman who was born in Ohio but moved with her family to the Central American country when she was 3.

The woman with whom she has built the bond, Sarah Stuckey, serves as a travel and tour guide, and has a dual citizenship with Costa Rica and the U.S.

Stuckey’s family is Quaker, and some of her previous family generations traveled to Costa Rica in the 1950s to escape the Selective Service.

“She considers herself a native Costa Rican now. She doesn’t remember life in the U.S.,” Bush said.

Stuckey speaks both English and Spanish with no accents. Her grandfather started a company in 1984 that provides educational opportunities for students and others traveling to Costa Rica. Stuckey traveled with her grandfather from the time she was young, taking over the company when he retired.

Bush, who has known and worked with Stuckey for 10 years, said Stuckey keeps the students safe and helps them learn.

“She is always an important part to the students having a successful tour,” Bush said. “She actually provided us with a tentative itinerary, which almost ended up being the final itinerary.”

The planning on this trip, which took place over the New Year’s holiday, started in 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. No students had signed up at that time.

Bush, a Northeast agriculture and horticulture instructor, led the travel planning. Brandon Keller, agriculture business instructor, and Courney Nelson, Precision Agriculture Trainer, served as additional employee sponsors.

Keller said with Northeast trips, it takes a minimum of two years to plan them and work out the details. Six Northeast students accompanied them on this 10-day trip in late December and early January.

Stuckey planned primarily an agricultural tour, with a few stops for fun. She plans everything from arriving at the airport to getting to and from destinations on a bus with a hired driver. “It’s fantastic customer service,” Bush said.

The trip included landing in San Jose, population 1.5 million, the capital of the country. Costa Rica has about 5 million people. From there, the trip included stops at an herb garden, traveling through a national park with a forest, a visit to the Caribbean coast, and traveling down the coast, nearly to Panama.

One of the stops was to see the Bribri, who are indigenous people. They live on a reservation and try to maintain their culture. The Bribri regularly invite Stuckey to bring her travel groups to them.

“The Bribri village was one of the highlights I had on the trip,” Keller said. “I consider myself a very cultural traveler, and if I can immerse myself in the culture of the region, that’s a great opportunity. Their family focuses on chocolate production, so we got to be part of that process.”

The students got to interact with the Bribri family, seeing the cacao process, tasting it before it is chocolate and hand roasting the beans over fire with their bare hands. That’s right, bare hands in a pot over fire.

“We all had to do it because that is part of their culture,” Keller said. “Everybody must be part of the process.”

Everyone was then given the opportunity to grind the cacao beans into a powder and then a paste. In the end, it turned into hot chocolate that everyone tasted. It is a great experience because it is a multi-generational effort in production, Keller said.

Nelson said they also were given an opportunity to explore the rain forest.

“We learned about the basic things we need from the forest. We need protein, carbohydrates and water,” Nelson said. “Finally, we also need shelter.”

One of the experiences was for the students and the group to eat protein and carbohydrates, including raw termites. One of the family members stuck his knife in a termite nest, then the students and everyone stuck a finger in the nest and had to taste the termites.

“We all had to do it. They didn’t give you an option. I went second because I didn’t want to have time to think about it,” Nelson said with a laugh. “I just needed to do it. You stick your finger in it until it is covered. They are very tiny.”

One thing everyone agreed on – raw termites taste like ginger.

Any reason given for why they taste like ginger?

“I don’t know. We were too worked up because we had to eat termites to ask questions like that,” Nelson said.

They also tasted a variety of leaves and learned the benefits of them. Some leaves were not to be eaten, but other leaves were used for things like dewormer or as a blood cleaner.

Another experience was going into a smoky sweat lodge as part of a spiritual ceremony. They were told to think of an intention as they were cleansed, then they had a drink poured in their mouth. The drink had 72 ingredients, and it was strong. It tasted a little like black licorice.

Nelson and the students said one of the best things about the trip was “slowing down.”

“I had experienced this a little before when I went to Puerto Rico,” Nelson said. “They are so chill. They don’t have 60,000 things to do in a day, so they don’t. Going to eat is a two-hour experience. They don’t have to be somewhere so they don’t just eat and finish within 30 minutes.”

The students said one of the things they noticed upon returning is that Americans do more than they have to. It is almost bothersome.

Bush, who had been to Costa Rica four times previously, said she is sad to see climate change impacting Costa Rica. Bush said most of the country of Costa Rica is a rain forest.

“The problem is for the 10 days we were there, it never rained. This is the driest I have ever seen it,” Bush said. “That’s a significant indicator of climate change. Sarah and I spent a significant amount of time talking about it. She was concerned about it. I was too because the last time I was there, it rained every day, which is what it should do. On the west coast, it is dry enough for wildfires.”

Additionally, the country is losing its beaches, as ocean levels rise.

Central America has become more commercialized.

“Costa Rica had always been roadside stands, subsistence farming, people taking care of each other. Now the big companies are taking over. (A big American) corporation owns 70% of the grocery stores and that hurts the average small farmer deeply,” Bush said.

The farmers grow coffee, cocoa beans (cacao), bananas, pineapples, papaya, yuca, watermelons, strawberries, mulberries and more. The dairy industry is also big.

Keller said the most fascinating thing to him is how diverse the climate is in Costa Rica. Even traveling 5 miles, there are significant changes. Costa Rica has the Continental Divide and there are big differences between the Pacific and Caribbean sides. It can go from lush green to very dry quickly.

The Continental Divide creates a lush environment, while the Pacific side has a true wet and dry season because of the trade winds.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing Monteverde, which is where the Quakers settled in the 1950s. It used to be hard to access in the mountains with any more than an ox cart, which is why the Quakers liked it -- so they would be left alone.

Stuckey lives there and provided tours for three nights and days at Monteverde. It was the most primitive of the accommodations on the trip.

They got to see the family’s dairy operation, which goes back a few decades. Most of the dairy herds are about 30 cattle. The Quakers brought some dairy cattle with them and started a cheese factory.

The cheese factory is now owned by an international company, with Jersey-cross originally, but more breeds have been incorporated over the decades.

The Stuckey family is focused on regenerative agriculture. Some of their practices include rotational grazing, major reduction in fertilizer and antibiotic use, and sustainable gardening practices.

The trip was designed so that Northeast students could learn more about general agriculture and horticulture.

Tomorrow: Find out how not only the trip, but traveling, can be an adventure, as it did for this Northeast delegation.

On Board Bus cutline
Northeast Community College students and their chaperones are shown on a bus to tour a national park in Costa Rica.