George Fox University, a private Christian school based in Newberg, Ore., is reaching out to small farmers and vintners in the Willamette Valley after receiving a $100,000 Renewable Energy Development Assistance Grant from the USDA.

Students and faculty in the university’s College of Engineering will use the grant to help agricultural producers become more energy efficient, conduct energy audits and consider renewable energy options on the farm or vineyard.

The university is collaborating with Spark Northwest, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization dedicated to renewable energy development. Funding will be provided by the USDA over two years, beginning this fall.

Bob Harder, dean of the College of Engineering at George Fox, said students will also benefit by becoming more widely recognized in the state as viable contributors to the growing needs of agriculture.

“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,” Harder said in a statement.

Founded in 1885 as a school for Quakers, George Fox offers bachelor’s degrees in more than 40 majors, 13 master’s and doctoral degrees and six seminary degrees. More than 4,000 students attend classes at the main campus in Newberg, south of Portland.

The university’s foray into agricultural outreach began two years ago, when school President Robin Baker gave a presentation about enhancing the value of George Fox among local communities.

As part of that initiative, one goal was to “develop solutions to real-life challenges in the Northwest through effective cross-disciplinary collaboration between students, professors and the marketplace.”

Harder said the university saw a “clear alignment” between the needs of the USDA Rural Development agency and the strengths of their engineering program. The College of Engineering — led by associate professor Chad Stillinger, and with encouragement from Jill Rees, USDA Rural Development economic coordinator for Oregon — decided to apply for the grant, which it received earlier this spring.

“In looking at our surroundings, it became obvious that one of our regional stakeholders was the agricultural industry,” Harder said. “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 the grant also positions the university for future USDA funding at the “energy-food-water-climate nexus,” including precision agriculture, field drones and sensors and digitizing data.

Erin McDuff, a spokeswoman for USDA Rural Development in Oregon, said the program is available not only to farmers and ranchers, but rural communities where farmers and ranchers live and work to help them thrive.

The renewable energy development program specifically is designed to help businesses save money on their utilities, which will make them stronger and more resilient, McDuff said.

“We’re also hoping to bring that innovation and new technology into those communities and make them more successful,” she said.

George Fox was the only university in Oregon to receive the grant this year.

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