Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Advancing Horticulture Careers at Northeast Community College

Sure, students in Northeast Community College’s Horticulture and Golf Course Management program learn about soil science in the classroom. But they also get out in the field and get their hands in the dirt. The result? A pipeline of young people who are prepared to take jobs in fields such as landscaping and golf course maintenance. Irrigation Leader spoke with a horticulture and agriculture instructor, Dr. Trentee Bush, a horticulture adjunct instructor, Richard M. Wright, and the ag program director, Jill Heemstra, about the program’s curriculum and goals. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be involved with this program. 

Trentee Bush: I grew up on a family ranch north of Whitman, Nebraska. I have a bachelor’s degree in landscape design and a master’s in public horticulture administration, both from the University of Nebraska, and a PhD in educational administration. For 9 years, I taught at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. For the last 3 years, I’ve been here at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, teaching in the horticulture and agriculture departments. 

Richard M. Wright: I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. I went to work for some friends doing turf irrigation about 46 years ago. I went out on my own about 44 years ago and have done everything in turf irrigation, from drip to golf courses. I still work at my own business, the Sprinkler Company, and I am an adjunct faculty member at Northeast. 

Jill Heemstra: I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science at South Dakota State University, then came to Nebraska and worked as an extension agent. At first, I was in a traditional county-based role, focusing on farm management with an emphasis on small farms. Then, I moved into a grant-funded position, which was a less-traditional extension role. I did a lot of program and curriculum development and worked on manure management, water quality, and nutrient management issues. I did that for about 20 years, and about a month ago, I started here at Northeast Community College as the director of the agricultural program. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about Northeast Community College and the Horticulture and Golf Course Management program?

Trentee Bush: Northeast Community College services 20 counties in northeastern Nebraska. We have several satellite campuses. We have about 3,000 full-time students. Most of them come from this region, but we also have students from out of state. Northeast Community College has partnerships with many colleges and universities in Nebraska. We work with Wayne State College and the University of Nebraska on a variety of things. We also have partnerships outside the state, including with Northwest Missouri State University and South Dakota State University. 

The Horticulture and Golf Course Management program offers a 2‑year associate of science degree in general horticulture. The horticulture program has gone through several revisions since it was established in 1986. In the last 2–3 years, we’ve tried to make it a more general program. Our intention is to give students a broad background so that they can work in any area of horticulture. Horticulture students rarely go on to a 4‑year program because there are so many job opportunities for people with a 2‑year degree. Most of them would rather work. 

Irrigation Leader: What are some typical employment opportunities for your students? 

Trentee Bush: In the past few years, many of our students have found work as superintendents or assistants at golf courses. Others work for arborists or landscape companies, and some own their own businesses. We have some at lawn-chemical-application companies. Most of our students end up staying in our 20‑county northeastern Nebraska area, because that’s where they are from. 

Jill Heemstra: More than 90 percent of the students who study in Northeast’s agriculture and horticulture programs get jobs in areas related to their program of study. 

Irrigation Leader: What are some of the things they learn in the 2‑year program? 

Trentee Bush: Our program has three classes on turf as well as classes on irrigation, nurseries and greenhouses, plant identification, landscape design, and landscape management. Students also learn basic horticulture science and soil science as well as writing, math, and interpersonal skills. 

In addition to our traditional horticulture program, a year ago we started a program called urban agriculture. The COVID‑19 pandemic showed us that many people do not know how to grow their own food. We wanted to capitalize on that and also get back to the basics. As part of this program, we have a 10‑acre demonstration urban farm. We will have an outdoor classroom and work with beehives and raised beds. Mr. Wright will help us create a low-flow irrigation system to teach growers how to water carefully. We hope to eventually grow some grapes and orchard trees and maybe some hops. We want it to be an edible landscape with lots of perennials in it. We are still in phase 1, but we have big dreams! 

Jill Heemstra: We also hope that, in this space, we can engage with people beyond our traditional students. We are interested in engaging the community by serving adult learners and by having daycares and teachers bring their classes to the space. We may even build a community garden. 

Irrigation Leader: What do you teach your students about irrigation? 

Richard M. Wright: Right now, our students are completing a residential irrigation plan, and we’ll walk through several different components. We’ve talked about different sprinkler heads, mainly with regard to their capabilities and limitations. I’m impressed to see the students dive right into the project. This spring, we’ll give students an opportunity to do some hands-on work with the college’s irrigation system, and we’ll get them to the golf course. They will also do some outside work installing and repairing pipe, including polyethylene and high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, pipe. That way, they’ll know what they’re looking at when they go out to do repairs on these systems. 

Irrigation Leader: Do the students also study pumps, such as the ones used on golf courses? 

Richard M. Wright: Absolutely. That’s one of my fortes: everything it takes to get water on and off the ground. One of my big pushes now is variable-frequency drives. If we can use variable-frequency drives to apply only the water we need, we end up with smarter applications at all sites. 

Irrigation Leader: In the municipal water world, we’re seeing a trend toward using more natural systems for capturing and treating runoff. Does your program focus on that at all? 

Trentee Bush: We do know that some water issues are starting to affect both the rural and the urban environments, and we’re seeing some challenges related to storm water quality and quantity. We talk about storm water management in our landscape management class. It is usually a new term for the students at that point. They really haven’t thought about where their residential water ends up. I think that is certainly an area in which we recognize that both our agriculture and horticulture departments need to grow, because we see a lot of people farming close to cities. They may even be on an urban water system. 

Richard Wright teaches students about irrigation equipment in the classroom.

Richard M. Wright: We’ve been fortunate in this state to have abundant water, but the supply is not endless. We’re in the early stages of education on water reclamation and helping people understand that we can’t just use a million gallons when it only takes one. We need to start talking more about conservation and recapturing our usage. 

Jill Heemstra: In agriculture, we’ve seen a push toward the use of low-flow sprinkler heads and water sensors. It’s interesting to see the conserve-and-reuse approach being promoted in urban and residential areas as well. There’s been a shift in mindset over the 20 years during which I’ve been in Nebraska. 

Irrigation Leader: How much is tuition at Northeast, and how many credit hours are required for the 2‑year degree? 

Trentee Bush: The in-state tuition is currently $105 per credit-hour, and the out-of-state tuition is $147 per credit-hour. The associate of applied science degree requires about 65 credit hours, and that will be shifting closer to 60 in the next year or so. It’s a great program, but we only have 2 years to teach the students in it everything they need to know. 

Irrigation Leader: Do your students do internships? 

Trentee Bush: Students do an internship in the summer between their first and second years. They can work anywhere they want, but we encourage them to branch out beyond their own communities. They can go anywhere in the world to get an idea of how water usage differs between places. We recommend that students who are interested in golf course management work go outside the Midwest, because water availability and requirements are so different everywhere else. 

Richard M. Wright: Yes—even the grasses are different. A big challenge for somebody from Nebraska who goes to the West Coast or Florida is that they’ve never seen zoysia. They don’t know what that type of grass is. It’s important to get them acclimated to other environments. 

Jill Heemstra: Dr. Bush engages with industry leaders to make sure that we’re being responsive to industry needs and that our students have the skills they need to fill jobs. We find out what the emergent issues are and build instruction on them into our programs. Northeast is also very student centered, and it works hard to ensure that the program is focused on their interests, their future, and what they can do with what they learn here. 

Dr. Trentee Bush is a horticulture and agriculture instructor at Northeast Community College. Jill Heemstra is the director of agriculture. Richard M. Wright is an adjunct irrigation instructor. To find out more about the program, contact Dr. Bush at trentee@northeast.edu.