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Guiding force behind Mitchell ethanol plant, Rubendall steps down from board

Jerry Rubendall, center, was surprised by Poet Biorefining employees at the plant near Mitchell in honor of his 11 years on the company's board of directors. Rubendall is stepping down from the board, and played an integral role in bringing the plant to the Mitchell area. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)

If not for Jerry Rubendall, Poet's presence in Mitchell may have remained a pipedream.

What started as a group of investors each throwing $200 into a hat to hire a lawyer to bring an ethanol plant to town, as Rubendall put it, turned into the Poet Biorefining plant that towers over any structure on the horizon. Among those investors was Rubendall, a 76-year-old third-generation farmer determined to make his vision a reality.

In the basement of the Loomis area plant, approximately 20 people gathered to surprise and honor Rubendall for his 11 years of service on Poet's board of directors. The moment he entered, Rubendall's smile lit up the room, and his colleagues lauded his accomplishments and impact on the community.

"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, Jerry," said Becky Pitz, the plant's general manager.

The company's large footprint in rural Mitchell was heavily influenced by Rubendall, said the guests in attendance Tuesday. And Rubendall was proud to turn a handshake deal with Poet CEO Jeff Broin into one of the Mitchell area's most well-known businesses.

And as the Mitchell resident and Sanborn County farmer steps down from the board, he was caught off guard by the ceremony in which he was given a print of a painting and a plaque in recognition of his service.

"Becky said we had papers to sign out here," Rubendall joked about the surprise party. "I thought for sure we signed enough papers."

Rubendall was a key player in finding a water source for Poet's Mitchell area location, a critical problem to solve in when establishing an ethanol plant. And that problem was solved when the city of Mitchell began using Missouri River water for drinking rather than water from Lake Mitchell, which became the water source for the Poet plant.

Through all the heartwarming reflection and good cheer on Tuesday, Rubendall and Poet's impact on the Mitchell area was mentioned repeatedly, with Poet Vice President and Treasurer Wyatt Haines saying Rubendall's efforts were a huge contributor in attracting more young farmers to the area.

But it wasn't easy, Haines said, from convincing Poet that corn could be grown well on the edge of the grain belt to running water samples to Sioux Falls and working with county commissioners.

"I tell you what, it's that relentless devotion that I hope when people drive by this plant they don't just see a tax base, and they don't see an employer, they don't see a place to buy our local products, they see a symbol that if you have a little bit of vision, a little bit of leadership, probably a little bit of stubbornness, you can change not only your local environment, but you can change the world, Jerry," Haines said. "And that's something you've done with this plant."

With Rubendall's help, Haines said, $100 million in profits was returned to the region and 285 million bushels of corn have been purchased since the plant opened in 2006. The impact was felt by the Haines family, too, who said he grew up in White Lake and has a brother who returned home to farm because the plant was built.

Poet LLC President Jeff Lautt also made the trip, bringing with him a few words of his own and letter of appreciation from Broin.

Lautt, who said he was involved in the early conversations about bringing a plant to Mitchell, remembered how influential Rubendall has been and how much tenacity he has.

"I appreciate everything that you've been in terms of (being a) champion for this location and a partner with Poet," Lautt said.