Pillen’s promises: Economic boom and little harm for neighbors. They haven’t always panned out.

As he grew Nebraska’s largest hog operation, Jim Pillen made economic and environmental assurances to residents of small communities where he was looking to build. Some residents profited. Others say Pillen Family Farms prospered while they suffered.

Dorian Kaspar was outside, cutting trees with her husband at her farmhouse near St. Edward a few years back around Easter, when a gust of wind blew through the wide-open cornfields and carried in what seemed like rain.

It descended on her property. It splattered all over her house’s freshly installed cement board siding. The mist dampened her shirt and pants. 

It hit her lips. She tasted it. It wasn’t rain.

“Dan, that’s hog manure,” she said to her husband.

A center pivot was spraying manure as fertilizer, feeding onto crops hog waste that had been pumped from an industrial hog farm less than a mile away. The Kaspars called the Nance County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies ordered the farmer to shut off the pivot, she recalled. The farmer later apologized profusely and it never happened again.

But the incident inflamed old feelings for Kaspar. In 2000, she and several other neighbors had sued the owner of the nearby hog barns, Jim Pillen, over their construction. Decades later, many neighbors, including Kaspar, can’t stand living near a massive hog farm owned by Pillen Family Farms, Nebraska’s largest hog producer built and owned by the state’s current governor and his family. 

When Pillen started expanding his hog operation across eastern Nebraska in the ’90s, he often came to town and told rural communities that the hogs his company would raise near their homes wouldn’t harm the water, the air or their quality of life, according to news reports, meeting minutes and interviews. He told small-town Nebraskans, county boards and reporters that these hog barns would revitalize the local economy and help stem the depopulation that has hammered rural Nebraska and rural America for generations.

“The growth of the pork industry can be one of the greatest economic opportunity programs that we could ever see,” he declared in 1997. 

Thanks to our sponsor

In 2003: “You look at all the towns that are losing population and dying and there’s one common denominator: the loss of livestock.” 

The reality of the past quarter century has rarely matched that rhetoric.

Like other industrialized hog farms, Pillen’s operations produce voluminous hog waste, which generates odor and sometimes spills even when handled properly. Manure from Pillen’s farms has impacted their quality of life, neighbors said. 

Some neighbors rarely go out into their yards because of the smell wafting from the nearby hog barns. Others worry about their drinking water — statewide, the median nitrate level in Nebraska’s monitoring well network has doubled in the past four decades, a rise caused by nitrogen fertilizer sprayed on corn and, to a lesser extent, runoff from massive feedlots and hog farms.

Pillen’s company says it has created more than 1,000 jobs across Nebraska, most in small cities, small towns and rural areas. But the resurrection Pillen predicted has not materialized, as many rural areas have continued their long trend of losing population. 

Gov. Pillen’s spokesperson and Pillen Family Farms executives didn’t respond to specific questions from the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest about the company’s economic footprint and environmental impact.

“It is evident from the questions posed … that this is the latest in an ongoing anti-ag media campaign, designed to use the Governor and the family business he launched with his father, as the focal point,” said Laura Strimple, Pillen’s spokesperson, in an email statement. 

“As the first farmer-governor to lead the state in over 100 years, Gov. Pillen is strongly committed to advocating for and defending the livelihoods of Nebraska farmers and ranchers from those whose sole and constant agenda is to attack and denigrate their way of life, as well as undermine every time-tested crop, livestock and food production practice that has made Nebraska agriculture as strong as it is today.”

Said Sarah Pillen, Pillen Family Farm’s CEO, in an email statement: “We have always remained true to our core values and committed to the well-being of our pigs, team members and communities. Our team members’ continued belief and dedication help us fulfill our promise of being positive environmental stewards and achieve our mission of helping to feed the world.”

People who know Pillen say he saw the writing on the wall — get bigger or get out — and made savvy moves to ensure his company’s success. Jay Wolf, who runs a large ranch near Albion and was briefly a business partner of Pillen’s, said Nebraska’s current governor was much more willing to take on risk than other hog farmers. 

Wolf uses a single word to describe Pillen’s business acumen: “Visionary.” 

“Others were afraid of the future,” he said. “Jim was full speed ahead.”

Pillen’s acumen is evident in how much his empire has grown in value. In 2005, his company secured a $4 million loan with the properties he owned at the time. In 2023, the same lender extended Pillen Family Farms $286 million — almost three times the annual budget of Boone County, in which several Pillen businesses operate.

Pillen Family Farms exemplifies an economic sea change. Large industrial operations like the company are built to compete in the 21st century global marketplace, said Don Macke, a longtime rural economist who has studied small towns across Nebraska, though not specifically those in which Pillen Family Farms operates. Competing globally helps the company, Macke said, but local communities don’t share in the same bounty.

“The economic contribution of that kind of business model is marginal at best in terms of contributing to the health and vitality of a rural community,” Macke said.

Dorian Kaspar lives across the road from Pillen Family Farms’ Northern Plains site near St. Edward. Kaspar said the hog farm’s odor has interfered with her passion for gardening, tending flowers and being outside. Photos by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press
Dorian Kaspar’s dog Dingo walks along the driveway with Pillen Family Farms’ Northern Plains site visible in the background.

Whether industrial agriculture has benefited Boone County depends on who is asked.

But, in interviews, most community members agreed that Pillen’s push into the community helped create deep divisions existing to this day.

Hank Thieman, a former Boone County commissioner for 32 years, voted to approve multiple hog farms proposed by Pillen. The board’s approval of one of these hog farms led to Thieman and his counterparts being sued by a group of Boone County residents in 2002. 

The fights over Pillen’s hog farms “got as ugly as can be,” Thieman said.

“I lost many, many nights of sleep over this,” he said. “I lost friendship with some of my best friends, some of my closest relatives … I got people to this day that will not talk to me.” 

***

In July 1997, about 200 residents from a group called Mid-Nebraska PRIDE loaded into two buses and cars and drove east to Lincoln. The trip’s purpose: Convince state lawmakers to make it easier for regular Nebraskans to stop massive new hog barns like the ones Pillen was building. 

“We are not against pork production,” Ron Schooley, a leader of the group, whose PRIDE acronym stood for People Responding In Defense of our Environment, told the Omaha World-Herald then. “We are against pork factories.” He lived near a 60,000-head Pillen facility called Wolbach Foods.

Local residents from more than a dozen Nebraska counties formed Mid-Nebraska PRIDE (People Responding in Defense of our Environment) in the 1990s to advocate for local control in letting hog farms into their communities, including those owned by the family business of Jim Pillen, now Nebraska’s governor. Jim Knopik’s brother-in-law painted Knopik’s grain bin with the group’s name in 1997. Photo by Yanqi Xu/Flatwater Free Press

Boone County has since adopted zoning ordinances that make it harder to build new hog farms. Once Pillen was elected governor, his office worked with livestock interest groups to author a bill that would have sped up the permitting process and weakened local zoning control, the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest reported earlier this year. The bill stalled in committee.

Like Schooley, many local residents are no strangers to pigs — he and many others grew up on family farms. 

But a massive hog confinement is a much different beast, often housing tens of thousands of hogs, each hog producing hundreds of gallons of waste each year.

Manure itself isn’t a problem, said Amy Schmidt, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor specializing in manure management. But it must be managed carefully so it doesn’t add to the growing nitrate contamination of the state’s drinking water supply. 

First working as a veterinarian, Pillen started his own operation on his family farm in Platte Center. When he was expanding, he assured Nebraskans that nothing his company did would endanger their water supply.

“The lagoons and the waste handling system will be built in a manner that would be comparable to any municipality,” Pillen told The World-Herald in 1997. “I’m comfortable that there will be no contamination of groundwater.”

That year, U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, held a listening session at the high school in Columbus, the heart of Pillen’s operations. About 500 people attended, according to The World-Herald, to listen to more than three hours of “sometimes emotional” testimony about Pillen’s proposed expansion.

“The track record of this industry literally stinks,” said Schooley at the meeting.

The booing didn’t deter Pillen, bolstered by the half of the crowd favoring the hog farms, some of whom gave him a standing ovation. The economic opportunities outweighed overblown environmental concerns, The World-Herald quoted attendees saying. 

Then, Pillen said this:

“The fact is if it’s handled correctly, the odor is not offensive to people a few feet away.”

***

Pillen’s promises were soon tested.

In 2000, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality cited four Pillen facilities near St. Edward for dumping ground-up pig carcasses into their manure-holding ponds. That violated state livestock regulations, the state environmental agency said. 

Pillen disagreed. 

Though the hog farms stopped this practice, “it continues to be Dr. Pillen’s position that this method of disposal is environmentally sound and not in violation of any DEQ regulations,” his lawyer wrote. 

That same year, 18 neighbors living near those four St. Edward-area hog farms took Pillen and his business partners to court. 

The residents, including the Kaspars, complained about the violations and a “vile, obnoxious, and nauseating” stench from the four Pillen hog farms, alleging they diminished their property values and threatened their health.

Some plaintiffs sought monetary damages. Most had one request: Make it not stink. 

Neighbors said it prevented them from being able to hang clothes on the clothesline. A neighbor said she couldn’t read on her couch unless she rubbed menthol-based ointment under her nose to overpower the odor. Another family stopped planning outdoor activities. Kathleen Stephens described herself as a “prisoner” in her own home. She said she could no longer eat produce grown in her garden.

When publicly championing new proposed hog farms, Pillen and business partners often downplayed the potential for stench in St. Edward and elsewhere. 

At a Butler County board meeting in 2013, Pillen told residents the odor would reach their homes one or two days out of 100, The World-Herald reported.

But Kaspar said she and neighbors continue to deal with it regularly today. 

“I could never leave my house and leave a window open. I would never do that,” Kaspar said. 

Eventually, the judge in the case, Michael Owens, inspected one of the facilities himself. 

He then ordered the hog farm staff to adopt a series of measures to mitigate the smell, including covering the fans to prevent the dust from spreading, said Bev Kemper, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

David Domina, the lawyer who represented Pillen in the lawsuit, said the complaints neighbors raised were typical in nuisance claims against livestock operations. 

The judge awarded neighbors a total of $42,500, according to court records. 

“The judgment was so modest that I recognized it as a successful outcome for the swine producer, my client,” said Domina. “In fact, a very successful outcome.”

***

In 2003, Pillen hosted a dinner for local corn growers on the front lawn of a small feed mill he’d bought in Albion. 

He’d faced criticism for trucking in hog feed from an outside county, but now the plan was to produce his own feed locally. Under a white tent, as growers ate pork loin with plum sauce, Pillen said his company’s increasing consumption would benefit all growers.

Over the next dozen years, Pillen raised more and more hogs, needing more and more feed. In the early 2000s, he told the Albion News he wanted to turn 3 million bushels of corn into feed a year. By 2015, that number jumped to 10 million bushels, and he built a new, much larger feed mill north of town.

It created about 40 jobs, and Pillen paid growers above market rate for their grain. 

But, like with other industrial hog operations, this increasing demand forced area corn growers to expand. They had to, in order to maintain “adequate family incomes,” said John Ikerd, former University of Missouri professor who researches the economic impact of hog farms.

Some did. And some were left behind. Boone and surrounding counties have seen some of the largest percentage decreases in corn growers in the state since the early 2000s, according to agriculture census data. 

The operators who remain are making a good living, said Kurt Kruse, chair of the Boone County Foundation Fund. “They’ve had some actually good years.”

The mill cost $8 million, the most valuable project in recent memory in the area, but didn’t contribute to Albion in one significant way. Boone County’s tax base had already been shrinking as it lost population. Because the mill was outside city limits, it wouldn’t bolster Albion’s coffers — a common way to avoid taxes, said Macke, the rural economist.

“You’ve got a free rider situation,” he said. “They’re benefiting from services, but they’re not helping pay for them in the same way that other folks are.”

With fewer tax dollars, it’s harder to sustain services, Macke said. Projects like the feed mill can help a local economy but only so much, he said. “On the one hand, it’s better to have it than not to have it,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not the most desirable form of economic development.”

Community members raised about $2 million to build a new childhood development center, Boone Beginnings, that opened in 2020. Pillen donated $80,000 to the center. Kruse said the center — and the town’s hospital, now an anomaly in rural areas — has attracted new families lately.

“Some towns have not kept up,” he said. “I believe Albion has.”

But Paul Hosford, a fifth-generation Boone County resident, said the county has “never recovered” from the 1980s farm crisis. As farmers went bankrupt en masse, the county lost families with the deepest roots. Industrial agriculture solved the lack of farm labor, but, Hosford said, it could not replace those farm families’ contributions to the community’s well-being. “We lost so many people who gave to their communities in many different ways,” he said.

***

While being challenged in Boone County court, Pillen wanted to keep building more hog farms in the area. 

Two Pillen Family Farms hog farms in the St. Edward area still bear the original owner’s name: Jenkins. Kenny Jenkins was a feedlot owner from St. Edward and Pillen’s one-time business partner. 

The partnership’s goal: build two units to hold as many as 24,000 hogs, including one roughly a mile from the Salem Lutheran Church, which no longer offers regular services but hosts weddings, reunions and funerals.

“We’re not out here trying to kill people, we’re trying to raise food,” Jenkins told reporters in 2003.

Some who live nearby feel Jenkins, whose mother taught Sunday school at the church, wronged them. Caty Reed’s father has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition worsened by the hog farms, she said in an interview.

“Kenny Jenkins sold us out,” she said while driving past the church this spring. 

Jenkins could not be reached for comment. 

Salem Lutheran Church near St. Edward. Pillen and a local partner built a hog farm roughly a mile from the church. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

Almost 200 letters of opposition against the site didn’t sway the state environmental agency, whose response stated the site met the rules and regulations in 2003.

Ron Nygren, who lived a half-mile from one of the hog barns, led the local opposition to sue the NDEQ, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy’s predecessor, over the Jenkins hog barns. He worried about air and water quality and his grandchildren’s health.

“I feel compelled to speak out because of the church,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star in 2003.

Pillen discounted the concerns and said the Sierra Club, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, “just sue(s) everything that comes out of (Department of Environmental Quality).”

He described the lawsuit as “a concentrated effort by a group to continue to attack an operation that has followed every rule and regulation in the state.”

Some Boone County residents allege that Pillen’s business’ track record of regulatory compliance is far from spotless. 

The Boone County board denied an application from Pillen-owned Mount Echo hog farm to spread manure through center pivots, according to 2007 meeting minutes, then asked the farm’s leaders to inject the manure into soil to control odor.

But Mount Echo still sprayed manure through center pivots on nearby fields, neighbor Brad Stephens alleged at a county zoning meeting in 2019, the Albion News reported

Ted Thieman, Boone County resident, member of Mid-Nebraska PRIDE and the cousin of longtime county commissioner Hank Thieman, has driven around and past Pillen hog farms for years. He questions whether Pillen hog farms handle dead animals and manure up to permit requirements since the state environmental agency doesn’t have enough staff to closely monitor the hog farms’ practices. 

“I’m sure that Pillen always has explanations on what they do to take care of all these problems or avoid them, but on a day-to-day basis it’s a different story,” he said.

***

In September 2010, an NDEQ employee received a call about a spill at Wolbach Foods in Greeley County, one of Pillen’s biggest and earliest hog barns. 

When the department contacted hog farm employees, pig waste had been spilling for more than a week. An estimated million gallons had run into a nearby pasture – enough liquid to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

Someone had left a drip irrigation system valve turned on. But state regulators soon realized the hog farm had never obtained a permit for the trickle lines they used for manure disposal. 

Pillen responded to the letter of violation himself. A trespasser appeared to have turned the valve on, he wrote. He had reported the incident to the sheriff’s office. 

The Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest requested the case files from the Greeley County sheriff, who said he was unable to find files associated with the case Pillen referenced after a “diligent search.” 

Twenty-two days after a complainant observed the initial spill, a state inspector visited a cattle pond near a Wolbach Foods hog barn he suspected had been contaminated by hog waste. He told an employee of Progressive Swine Technologies, Pillen’s company, that state law said the company would need to pump out the water if hog waste was found in the pond. The employee’s response: “No, we won’t do it,” the inspector wrote in a memo

Later, lab results brought confirmation: There was a high concentration of solids in the water, and “a significant addition of waste from the swine facility,” according to the state report. The pond contained ammonia at a higher level than the state’s surface water standard.

It wasn’t the hog barn’s first offense. Earlier that year, the state environmental agency cited it for pumping livestock waste into a non-lined and non-permitted lagoon, which later resulted in a court-ordered settlement. 

An inspector with Nebraska’s state environmental agency visited the site of Wolbach Foods — a hog farm owned by Pillen’s family — on Sept. 7, 2010, after a discharge. The culvert, on the south side of Greeley Road, drained the effluent from Wolbach Foods, and contained what appeared to be foam, the inspector wrote. Photos excerpted from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality discharge investigation report, Sept. 21, 2010
The path of the hog waste discharge from Wolbach Foods annotated by the state inspector. The spill occurred due to an open valve of an unpermitted drip irrigation system that allowed an estimated million gallons of livestock waste to spill, according to state reports.

Leaks, intentional or accidental, can allow pathogens and excessive nutrients like nitrates to enter waterways and groundwater and pose oft-invisible threats to aquatic life and human health, said Dan Andersen, an Iowa State University professor specializing in manure management.

As the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest reported last year, high nitrate levels showed up in monitoring wells at more than a dozen Pillen facilities.

In 2014, during a lagoon cleanout, wastewater from a Pillen hog barn started leaking and ran downhill into neighbor Mark Cruise’s pasture. He noticed pig waste in his cattle pond. Pillen’s company paid for the fence Cruise built around the pond to keep his cattle from drinking the contaminated water. It’s not worth the risk, Cruise’s vet told him.

Pillen footed the bill for the hay for Cruise’s cattle for the rest of the season. He recalled Pillen calling him and listening to him.

“(Pillen) has always done what he’s had to do,” he said in an interview.

Jim Bulkley, Columbus mayor who handled environmental compliance for Pillen’s company from 2010 to 2018, was contacted by the NDEQ about the spill. 

Bulkley would answer neighbors’ calls when they complained, he said. That responsiveness often went a long way, he said. 

“Did I sit in on some meetings with neighbors that weren’t always the happiest? Yes. And that’s part of the business is working with them to rectify issues or problems,” Bulkley said in a recent interview. 

***

In 2021, an email from a Boone County zoning official captured the longstanding frustration many neighbors, and some local officials, feel toward Pillen hog farms. 

Boone County’s zoning administrator Mary Ziemba emailed the local natural resources manager and the NDEE about neighbors’ complaints regarding wastewater runoff from two Pillen sites.

“This has been a problem since the units were constructed and have been reported numerously throughout this time,” she wrote. “The Pillen Family Farms, LLC currently owns these facilities, and nothing has been done to prevent or clean-up this mess.”

An NDEE inspector visited the two sites and found no signs of waste discharge. 

Neighbors say these incidents are not always reported or detectable. They’re easily missed during heavy rainfall, or if a spill occurs over a weekend, said Jim Knopik of Belgrade, who lives near four different Pillen hog farms. 

A broken gasket near the Bourn Cedar hog farm, owned by Pillen Family Farms, shown on Sept. 11, 2023. Sludge, apparently hog manure, pooled near the site, emitting a heavy odor. A review of NDEE records shows the hog farm has received no complaints or reports of discharge. Photo by Yanqi Xu/Flatwater Free Press

Even if the runoff reaches a neighbor’s property, he said the state often doesn’t intervene until it reaches a public waterway or other body of water. 

Some area residents have benefited from selling corn to Pillen’s feed mill, working for the company and receiving its charitable donations. But there is also a cost, says one of the hog barn’s nearest neighbors.

Kaspar says she will eventually sell her home of more than 40 years. Her husband, Dan, died in 2018. Their children have moved away. But Kaspar worries about the value of her property because of her neighbors next door — roughly 10,500 hogs. 

Carolyn Knopik remembers workers building the Wolbach hog farm and stopping by local cafes and bars. They touted more jobs to be created by the hog farms. 

But the workers left quickly, she said, while the damage remains.

“They said how much it was going to do for the little towns,” she said. “But it didn’t last, and (we) were just stuck with the smell.”

Jim and Carolyn Knopik stand next to their house in Belgrade, Nebraska on Sept. 11, 2023. Photo by Yanqi Xu/Flatwater Free Press
Pillen Family Farms’ facilities near St. Edward. Photos by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

By Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Newsline in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice, voting rights, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. She hails from China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are.

By Sky Chadde

Sky Chadde is Investigate Midwest's assistant editor/senior reporter and has covered the agriculture industry since 2019.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Subscribe

FLATWATER’S FREE NEWSLETTER

Every Friday, we’ll deliver to your inbox Nebraska’s most interesting, meaningful, deeply reported and well-written news stories.