Defenbaugh, Caupert, named FEW award winners

By Holly Jessen | June 02, 2015

The two awards given out annually at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo were presented Tuesday, June 2, at the start of the general session. Ray Defenbaugh, president, CEO and chairman of Big River Resources LLC, was the winner of the High Octane Award and John Caupert, director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, received the Award of Excellence.

Defenbaugh is a man who talks passionately about strong farmer values and treating others as you would like to be treated. A janitor is just as important as a CEO, he says, and, as with everything he says, he means it. He and his wife, who he describes as always being supportive, have four children who live within five miles and eleven grandchildren. His two boys run the family farm, one daughter is an emergency room nurse and his other daughter works at Big River. He describes himself as blessed.

When asked how he ended up in the ethanol business, Defenbaugh starts out by telling the story of a terrible farm accident that happened in 1963. He was working in the dark in an unfamiliar field, standing on the ground, operating a hydraulic lever on an old corn picker when the equipment touched overhead power lines. Twenty-four thousand volts ran through his body for a half hour while others tried to figure out how to free him. A close friend touched him, in an effort to help, and was instantly killed.

The short version of Defenbaugh’s story is that he lost his right arm to gangrene and his toes and part of his feet, which blew off in the accident. Doctors told him repeatedly that he probably wouldn’t ever be able to walk again, resume farming or participate in activities like shooting or swimming, but he checked himself out of the hospital and proved them wrong on all points. The formerly right-handed man first shot pheasants from his wheelchair. “I thought, well, they were wrong about that, I wonder what else they are wrong about,” he said, adding that he next went for a swim in a muddy swimming hole before his wounds were even healed.

In order to pay staggering medical bills, Defenbaugh developed a strategy. He went to college with the plan of becoming the best agriculture teacher there was, using that to get a job at a bank, “because they couldn’t turn down the best,” and use that to make enough money to get back into farming. “During those times, one thing was lacking,” he said. “Ag wasn’t really profitable. I could hear a sucking sound, sucking capital out of the communities, and I could see farmers working hard but the rewards were being captured by others.”

Ultimately, Defenbaugh, whose family before him had farmed since 1710, took that very path back into farming. Determined to find a way to add value to farming, he became convinced that ethanol was a good solution. He was part of board of directors formed with the goal to build a 40 MMgy ethanol plant. The story of his accident is an important part of how he got into the ethanol industry, he said, because it taught him that a driven individual with a goal won’t give up easily. It also made him the kind of person who would always help others, as often as he could, an additude which is incorporated into Big River’s mission and motto.

Today, Big River is a successful business that has never had a loss year and has never failed to pay dividends to its investors. The company has grown to include four Big River ethanol plants, two grain elevators and a Zein coproduct facility currently under construction.

Caupert is in his ninth year as director of NCERC. The role of the center is to conduct research on biofuels-related technologies, 90 percent of which come from the private sector. In the nearly 12 years since the center opened its doors, more than 50 technologies have gone from NCERC into the commercial marketplace, where they have generated more than $5.6 million in revenue and employ more than 5,000 people. “We were a step in that commercialization pathway,” Caupert said.  

One of the things Caupert does as part of his job is to travel to Washington, D.C., four to six times a year, to talk about the issues facing the corn-ethanol industry. In the last calendar year he was in D.C. four times and while there he had a total of 37 congressional meetings. On those same trips, he also often meets with officials from the White House, U.S. EPA, USDA and, or U.S. DOE. There are times when he’s asked to come to a meeting on short notice and has to be on a plane the next day, he said.

Over time, one thing he has been asked to address with increasing frequency is workforce needs, the human element of the ethanol industry. In the past year, NCERC received a $10 million U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training program grant and workforce training is a topic he is very passionate about. “It can’t be overemphasized, the importance and the value of training the people coming into this industry,” he says.

In the nine years he’s served as NCERC director, the facility has trained more than 600 people. A total of 93 percent of them are directly employed in the ethanol industry, whether that’s at ethanol plants or vendors or service providers to the industry. That’s something of which he is very proud. 

Although Caupert is periodically called on to advise, he puts more emphasis on the value of the advice he receives from NCERC’s technical advisory committee. Made up equally of individuals from industry, academia and trade, NCERC relies heavily on the committees’ input on many matters, he said.  

Before he started working at NCERC, Caupert spent the bulk of his career as a contractor working with Anheuser-Busch to market, sell and handle the logistics of the company’s spent brewer’s grains, the brewing industry’s equivalent to distillers grains. But after his father was diagnosed with cancer, he decided he wanted to move back to the Midwest, closer to family. He took a job working for Romer Laboratories, where he helped move the company from no customers in the corn ethanol industry to more than a third of its customers from the ethanol industry. He also increased the utilization of the company’s products and technologies for use in the corn export industry from nothing to 67 percent.

After that he spent less than a year with the National Corn Growers Association before he was nominated for the NCERC position. “I’m one of those rare people that truly has had the opportunity to have my passion and my profession be one and the same.”

Caupert talked about how ethanol is so much more than just a homegrown biofuel. He mentioned job creation and the direct link between renewable fuels and national security, something that is important to him due to the fact that he has a family member that has served multiple tours in the Middle East. He’s excited to be part of the industry and is looking forward to the future. “I think we have just scratched the surface of what we can be done,” he said. 

Past award winners are listed at the FEW website