GOLDEN VALLEY, MINNESOTA, US — As a southern Illinois farm kid who has spent his entire career in grain and grain processing, taking on leadership of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS) was a natural fit for John Caupert.

Caupert, who has more than 30 years of agribusiness experience, started as GEAPS executive director on Dec. 11, 2023. He succeeds Steve Records, who started in 2019 and left at the end of March 2023. Director of Operations Julia Kloehn served as interim executive director from April to December 2023.

“This truly is the heart and soul of agriculture,” said Caupert, during an interview with World Grain at GEAPS Exchange this February in Kansas City, Missouri, US. “The members of this organization are the folks that are taking agricultural products from farm to fork, from farm to fuel, and from farm to the thousands of products that are made from grain. These are the individuals who are feeding and fueling a growing world.”

In his new leadership role, Caupert wants to make sure that message is broadcast to the rest of the world and ensure the value of what GEAPS’ members do is understood.

“Let’s bring down the stigma or stereotype that you’re just doing a job,” he said. “You’re doing a critically important job. You’re making sure that somebody around the world is getting food on their table.”

We are a family of 3,300-plus folks working in this industry. Let’s grow this family. What’s good for one, is good for another.

He also hopes to grow the organization by attracting more international visitors to events like Exchange and increasing membership globally. Caupert, who spent the last 17 years as executive director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC), plans to tap into that market for new members.

“I think it is an interesting level of experience and background that frankly might be unique to the executive director role at GEAPS,” he said. “And that’s the part that excites me, the diversity of agriculture.”

Hedlin Ag Enterprises, which specializes in executive searches for agribusinesses and agricultural associations, guided the GEAPS’ International Board of Directors in its search. Caupert’s knowledge, experience and education in the grain elevator and processing industry fits perfectly with what the board was seeking, said Chuck Kunisch, president, GEAPS International board of directors.

 “He demonstrated passion and experience in the agriculture and grain industry for his whole career and life,” Kunisch said. “The GEAPS International Board felt he was what we needed to expand GEAPS’ mission to help feed and fuel the world both domestically and internationally.

“He’s had an exceptional first four months. He has hit the road running with personal visits to 11 of the GEAPS chapters and also other association meetings where he has spread the word of the benefits of GEAPS and looking at future collaboration with these organizations.”

All in for agriculture 

Caupert was born and raised on a grain and livestock farm in southern Illinois. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agribusiness economics with a specialization in agriculture policy from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

He started his career 35 years ago at a country grain elevator in southern Illinois before moving onto the processing side and working as a corporate contractor at Anheuser Busch for 10 years.

“I was focused on raw materials, spent brewers’ grains and all the things related to grain processing,” Caupert said.

From there, Caupert moved to Romer Labs, where he was first introduced to GEAPS. He was selling Romer’s products and technologies into the grain export market and was asked to be a guest speaker at chapter events.

“That was 20 years ago,” he said. “From there, I went to the National Corn Growers Association and was the first-ever staff lead on ethanol and ethanol coproducts.”

After the NCGA, Caupert took on the role of executive director for the NCERC, a research center dedicated to the development and commercialization of biotechnologies on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. While there, he directed the pathway to commercialization for more than 80 technologies and grew the NCERC from a publicly funded research center to one that is self-sustained through private sector contractual research and grants.

After attending his first Exchange as executive director, Caupert said it’s a different experience when you are part of the team responsible for creating and hosting the event versus exhibiting as a vendor. The 2024 event came together well, he said, with a sold-out Expo and a waiting list of nearly two dozen as well as 45 hours of breakout sessions.

Kansas City has been the site of the event consecutively since 2022 and will continue until 2029, said Caupert, noting that more than 50% of all US agricultural products are produced within driving distance of the city.  

GEAPS leaders already are discussing what happens past 2029, Caupert said, noting that attendance numbers and feedback from sponsors and attendees will play a role in any decision.

“We directly solicit feedback from all of them,” he said. “The data tells a story, and the story provides an opportunity. We’ll lead to where the data tells us to go.”

Organization goals

GEAPS is a member-driven organization, Caupert said, and he would like to increase that membership, as well as the pool from which those members come.

“We are a family of 3,300-plus folks working in this industry,” he said. “Let’s grow this family. What’s good for one, is good for another.”

Caupert said he passionately believes that everyone, from the employee who has a broom in their hand cleaning up around the receiving pit to the CEO in the corner office, serves a critical role in the value chain of agriculture. More importantly, he wants to bring awareness to that fact.

“I want to complement that awareness through information and educational opportunities extended by GEAPS,” he said. “I see the opportunity to elevate the status and prestige of what it means to be a member of GEAPS. It means that you and your role, regardless of what it is, are directly assisting in the feeding and fueling of the entire world. There’s value in that.”

Caupert has met with some of the largest grain companies in North America that have not been involved with GEAPS in the past, Kunisch said.

“He’s not only had them interested, but they have also signed up a significant number of new members,” he said.

Caupert sees significant growth opportunities in the ethanol industry. There are nearly 200 biorefineries in the United States, each employing 50-plus people, he said.

“That’s 10,000 people we’ve not even spoken to,” he said. “Every ethanol plant starts off as a grain elevator. They’re receiving grain by truck, in some cases by rail and in a few cases by barge. We need to get in front of them and convey to them not only who we are in GEAPS but why it’s important to be a member, to be a collaborator, to be a partner. Those are things we can do right now.”

Kunisch said the association hasn’t had a great presence in the processing part of the industry. In the last few years, with the increase in corn and soy processing for the biofuels industry, the board believes GEAPS has much to offer in education and industry networking.

“With John’s past experience in the grain processing side, not only with his past job at the NCERC but also other positions he has held and his extensive network of contacts, he would be able to help GEAPS expand into this area,” Kunisch said.

During Exchange, Caupert saw one friend from the ethanol industry who attended for the first time because of Caupert.

“He said, ‘you’re here so we knew we had to come and check it out,’” Caupert said. “That’s Exhibit A of something that I hopefully bring to this organization. If you start with one, then there’s another, and another, and then you just build. The foundation is there; we’re going to build upon it.”

Caupert also sees opportunities in building student membership, which he said is flirting with some historically low numbers. Students have free, full membership access, and the educational and networking opportunities that go with that.

“It’s an area that you will be hearing me talk about frequently, the student membership and the value proposition to the students,” he said. “Let’s get them started now.”

He has met with representatives from Kansas State University, Iowa State University, the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University to tell them about the availability of free GEAPS membership. Attracting and engaging students early will help with a challenge facing the grain industry and agriculture overall — the ongoing labor shortage, Caupert said.

Less than half of 1% of America’s population lives on farms. Children like Caupert, who grew up on a farm and sought a career in the industry, are dwindling in number.

“We have to be tapping into the non-farm, non-rural American workforce,” Caupert said. “The US also has an aging workforce when it comes to vocational skills and things associated with that. GEAPS as an organization needs to tap into that element of the workforce as well.

“We know what the challenge is; it’s just going to require effort to overcome that.”

Caupert is already successfully following the direction given him by the GEAPS International board of directors, including providing education for the industry, building networking opportunities and increasing membership throughout North America, Kunisch said.

“We’re also looking at expanding GEAPS’ worldwide presence for the benefit of our regular and associate members,” Kunisch said. “It is exciting times to be involved in the grain industry and John is the perfect person to help GEAPS realize and expand this potential.”

Caupert would like to grow the international presence at GEAPS Exchange, which was at more than 100 attendees this year from two dozen countries. There is international awareness of the organization and event, but there’s room to grow.

“If we can double the number that’s coming from each one of those countries, we double the international presence,” he said.