George Fox Journal Cover George Fox Journal - The Magazine of George Fox University | Fall 2009, Volume 5 Number 2

The quest for the sustainable sunflower

Botanist David Van Tassel (G91) might have found the seeds of sustainable agriculture growing along the gravel roads of rural Kansas

By Rob Felton

David Van Tassel is on a quest to save the earth one sunflower seed at a time. He and his fellow researchers at The Land Institute in Salinas, Kan., are attempting to breed and grow new perennial varieties of sunflowers and other major crops that will require less water, energy and chemicals than today’s annual commercial crops. Fast food this is not. They hope to share their seeds with the world sometime in the next 25 to 50 years.

The son of Free Methodist missionaries, Van Tassel grew up in Hong Kong and graduated from George Fox in 1991 as a biology major. After earning a PhD in plant biology from the University of California at Davis, he sought a job in sustainable agriculture. He joined The Land Institute in 1997, a move that also allowed his wife Kristin (Potts) (G91) – now an English professor at nearby Bethany College – to return to her home state.

Van Tassel’s plant-breeding work began with wheat and sorghum, but his focus now is on a protein-rich legume called Illinois bundle flower and sunflowers, which are used to make cooking oil – a vital part of nutrition for the world’s poor.

He’s attempting to cross commercial annual crops with their wild perennial relatives. “It’s like crossing a lion and a tiger,” he said. Only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of crosses are successful and produce seeds. He compares the process to dealing out a shuffled deck of cards. “Occasionally you get a good hand. If you grow enough, you get seeds.”

Van Tassel also is attempting to domesticate the wild perennials by selecting the plants with the most desirable traits, such as big abundant seeds and easy harvesting. “Basically, you grow huge numbers of plants and pick out the weird ones,” he said. He cross-pollinates these plants, raises their progeny, again selects the most promising plants with the most desirable traits, and repeats the cycle over and over. Each cycle can take two or three years.

The strategy of The Land Institute ( begins with the native prairie species that grew throughout the Midwest long before the plow arrived. The perennial grasses, sunflowers and Illinois bundle flower grew deep roots that prevented erosion and allowed them to survive drought and harsh winters. Over time they recycled the soil nutrients and helped build the topsoil. In contrast, today’s high-yielding annual crops can deplete the land of nutrients within a few years, a major problem in many parts of the world with marginal farmland. A part of the solution, according to The Land Institute, is to create perennial crops that are as productive as today’s annual crops but require far less fertilizer, irrigation and erosion-causing tilling. A crop of this type might require replanting just once every 10 to 15 years.

Patience and a strong work ethic are mandatory at The Land Institute. These are scientists who get dirt under their fingernails. He collected many of his original seeds from state parks, backyards and roadsides. His days are often spent battling weeds and marauding pests. “It’s often more perspiration than inspiration,” he said.

If his sweat pays off, the world will be closer to having a more sustainable source of food.

Plug in and pedal

Plug in and pedal: MBA student Wakefield Gregg opens Portland’s first electric bicycle shop after inspirational China trip

By Michael Richeson

It feels like a normal bike shop. It looks like a normal bike shop. But Wakefield Gregg’s new E-Bike Store is unlike any other bike shop in Portland.

Gregg, a George Fox MBA student, sells electric bicycles, and his is one of about 15 businesses across the country to do so. Although his store has the typical, laid-back feel of a friendly Portland bike hangout, it’s with a twist. His customers at the store drink free lattes and speak in terms of watts, charge times, power curves, torque sensors and mileage.

“The bikes make total sense,” Gregg said. “They reduce your gas bill, help people get exercise and are good for running errands. Forty percent of all car trips are two miles or less. The average commute is 5–12 miles. These bikes fit all that.”

During a trip to China two years ago, Gregg watched as gas in the United States climbed to more than $4 a gallon and noted that there were 90 million electric bikes on the road in China. He instantly wanted one for himself.

The bicycles, which cost between $1,000 and $3,000, come equipped with racks and fenders and can cruise down the road up to 20 mph – even uphill. They handle surprisingly well, and riders can zoom down the street while casually pedaling, thanks to powerful rechargeable batteries. Some of the bikes have twist throttles. Others have torque sensors that can tell how hard the rider is working. Depending on the setting, the bikes will kick up the electric assist when the going gets tougher.

“The people who are buying want to be part of the cycling revolution, but they don’t feel ready or in shape to buy a traditional bike and are nervous around cars,” Gregg said.

Portland is well-known for its bike- friendly atmosphere, and while the response has been overwhelmingly positive, some of the cycling purists sniff at the thought of electricity helping push them up hills. But even the purists appreciate that electric bikes help get cars off the road.

“I believe in sustainability,” Gregg said. “This business is an outgrowth of that value. I wanted to create a business that promotes sustainability and health inherently. This was a natural fit given my value set.”

Everything in his northeast Portland store speaks to his commitment to sustainability. Some of the wood came from an old barn from the coast. The slat walls he got from another business that didn’t survive. Energy-efficient lights are hung by brake cables.

When Gregg, a lifelong bike enthusiast, began his MBA at George Fox, he knew he wanted to start a business. The trip to China with his cohort gave him the idea he needed. At first, he thought he’d import his own line but quickly realized that he would go bankrupt doing that. Then he considered being a sales rep for an established line, but the response from traditional bike shops was tepid.

When Gregg started looking at a loan for his own bike shop, the banks said “sure” at first. But then the economy tanked.

“The only loan I could get was a $10,000 [Small Business Administration] loan at 12 percent,” Gregg said. “And there was a 58-page application.”

Gregg took the lessons from his class on entrepreneurship to heart and got creative. He built a strong connection with Eric Sundeen, who runs a store in Seattle and is one of the electric bike pioneers in America. Gregg sold bikes owned by Sundeen so he wouldn’t have to incur heavy inventory debt and looked for inexpensive ways to outfit his shop.

“It’s incredible how inexpensively we’ve been able to do this,” he said. “We’ve put less than $30,000 into all this.”

Gregg’s passion for bicycles and sustainability has paid off well so far: The shop has turned a profit since the first month. Looks like there will be much more talk of watts, charge times and power curves in Portland.


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