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Defenbaugh Named FEW Award Winner

By Holly Jessen, Ethanol Producer Magazine

Ray Defenbaugh, of Biggsville, president, CEO and chairman of Big River Resources LLC, was the winner of the High Octane Award, presented June 2 at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo (FEW), held this year in Minneapolis, MN.

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 (Alice), who he describes as always being supportive, have four children who live within five miles and eleven grandchildren. His two boys (Dan and Matt) run the family farm, one daughter (Jen Kinneer) is an emergency room nurse and house supervisor, and his other daughter (Deb Green) works at Big River as its Human Resource Manager. 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 hundred volts ran through his body for over an 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, having no insurance in those days, Defenbaugh developed a strategy. He went to college, obtained a bachelor's and master's degree, 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 money to get back into farming and to pay off all incurred medical bills.

"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 continually in America 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 attitude which is incorporated into Big River's mission and motto.

With that attitude, he even created and taught business plans and established co-op development in the European countries of Moldova and Russia.

Today, Big River is a successful business which he quickly credits the help of all staff and a good board of directors, that has never had a loss year and has never failed to pay dividends to its investors.

The company sells nationally and internationally. It has grown to include four Big River ethanol plants in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, with nine grain delivery locations, selling DDGs into the livestock industry, and corn oil into the bio-diesel and feed industry.

Currently, Big River Resources has a state of the art Zein coproduct facility under construction in Galva.

Used courtesy of  Holly Jessen, Managing Editor Ethanol Producer Magazine

Ray Defenbaugh is a member of the Renewable Fuels Association on its executive committee and chairman of its DDG committee.

He is a board member and treasurer of Growth Energy and member of its salary committee, a member of ACE, a member of the Grains Council and chairman of its DDG committee,

He is president of Illinois Renewable Fuel Association and chairman of its DDG committee, and chairs Prime The Pump-an ethanol retail structure improvement, and he serves as a board member of Absolute Energy in northern Iowa and on their Risk Management and Salary committees, and he's an advisor for Summit Farms, LLC.

Locally, Defenbaugh is CEO of Big River Resources LLC, serving on the Executive and Risk Management committees and president of the Big River Resources, Coop., and he is chairman of the board of Midwest Bank of Western Illinois.

Ray Defenbaugh, center, accepts the High Octane Award from Tim Portz, left, and Mike Bryan, both of BBI International.

-photo by Duane Koshenina