Energizing Agri-Tech

Winegrowers to benefit from grant awarded to George Fox

George Fox University students will have the opportunity to provide technical assistance to small farmers and rural businesses because of  a $100,000 USDA grant awarded to the university’s engineering department. The purpose of the Renewable Energy Development Assistance grant is to fund faculty and undergraduate research used to help farmers and vineyard owners with tasks such as energy audits, energy efficiency and renewable energy options for their facilities. The funds, which will be provided to the Newberg college over a two-year period, begin this fall.

At George Fox, Dr. Chad Stillinger, associate professor of electrical engineering, and an undergraduate research student works on renewable energy for rural areas. ##Photo courtesy of George Fox University

“George Fox is located right in the heart of a verdant countryside, surrounded by agricultural endeavors of all kinds — berries, grapes, nuts, dairy and hops — which provides us with a significant opportunity to get to know and serve our neighbors, an advantage we have over some of the other engineering programs located in more urban parts of the state,” said Bob Harder, dean of George Fox’s College of Engineering. “One big benefit will be the fact our students will become more broadly recognized in the state as a viable contributor to the growing needs we are facing in agriculture.”

According to Harder, the grant positions George Fox for future opportunities for USDA funding in other agri-tech areas at the Energy-Food-Water-Climate Nexus, including: precision agriculture; Internet-of-things (IOT) sensors and drones for the field; digitizing farm and data science/management opportunities; and synthetic biology at the intersection of agriculture and life sciences.

“Through this grant our students will get the unique opportunity to interact with owners of small farms and vineyards, understand their energy needs and use their technical engineering capabilities to assist them in diagnosing energy waste as well as propose efficiency measures and renewable energy options,” Harder said. Chad Stillinger, an associate professor of electrical engineering, who has extensive experience with renewable energy applications, is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The genesis of the grant began two years ago, when the university’s president, Robin Baker, presented “A Charter for Change,” which included a design aspiration to “enhance the perceived value of George Fox among key stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest by developing initiatives and addressing the social, economic and spiritual needs in the region we serve.”

One goal associated with the aspiration was to “develop solutions to real-life challenges in the Northwest through effective cross-disciplinary collaboration between students, professors and the marketplace.” Since then, the College of Engineering has intentionally worked to engage regional stakeholders in developing solutions to authentic problems they face.

“In looking at our surroundings, it became obvious that one of our regional stakeholders was the agricultural industry,” Harder said. “I shared our interest in becoming more engaged with the local agricultural community, and ultimately we applied for this grant through the encouragement of the USDA rural development economic coordinator in our state, Jill Rees. We applied because we saw a clear alignment between the needs of the USDA in this area and our engineering program’s strengths.”

This grant award marks the first step toward becoming recognized in the state of Oregon as an academic institution that can help address the future needs of the Energy-Water-Food-Climate Nexus and coming agri-tech revolution. This year, George Fox was the only university in the state to receive the award. It will be collaborating efforts on the grant with Spark Northwest, a Seattle-based renewable energy nonprofit organization.


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