QUICK HIT: Pigs and Power

Before becoming governor, Jim Pillen grew Nebraska’s biggest hog empire. A year-long collaboration between the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest sought to tell the story. How he did it. And how it impacted Nebraskans.

Long before he became governor, Jim Pillen grew a Nebraska livestock empire.

For the past year, Flatwater Free Press and its partner on this project, Investigate Midwest, have looked at what Pillen built in the rolling series, “Pigs and Power.” 

The series by FFP senior reporter Yanqi Xu and Investigate Midwest senior reporter Sky Chadde illustrates how Pillen, starting from humble beginnings, became Nebraska’s biggest hog producer by anticipating the changes roiling American agriculture.

It shows how his operation, eventually a family company known as Pillen Family Farms, affected the small Nebraska communities it moved into. It details how he and other large livestock producers impact Nebraska’s economy, its landscape and its water. 

And it broke the news that, while governor, his administration has tried – so far unsuccessfully – to ease regulations making it easier for companies like his own to build large hog farms.

Pillen responded last year by making comments about the FFP reporter reporting this story. His reaction became a national story.

Read the four-part series, “Pigs and Power,” below.

Part 1: Pillen’s Rise. Jim Pillen built one of the biggest hog enterprises in the country. Then he got elected governor. It’s a bona fide Nebraska success story, and one that raises questions about potential conflicts of interest.

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Photo collage showing Jim Pillen, a pig, several farm buildings and the Nebraska state capitol building in Lincoln.
Before becoming Nebraska’s governor, Jim Pillen grew the largest hog empire in the state. Photo illustration by Hanscom Park Studio

Part 2: Pillen’s Water. Monitoring wells at 16 Pillen family-tied operations have tested for nitrate levels far above legal drinking water limit. One was so high, an expert said, “it should be a 911.”

These two Pillen-owned hog farms have shown elevated nitrate for years. In both cases, downstream well readings are much higher than the upstream readings. This difference often suggests that contaminants from livestock operations have entered groundwater. Map by Hanscom Park Studio

Part 3: Pillen’s Rules. Once Nebraska’s governor, Gov. Jim Pillen’s office worked with industry groups to craft a bill easing the ag permitting process, emails show.

A Pillen livestock truck travels near Wholestone Farms, which is also partly owned by Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen and his family, in Fremont on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

Part 4: Pillen’s Promises. As he grew Nebraska’s largest hog operation, Jim Pillen made economic and environmental assurances to residents of small communities where he wanted to build. Some residents profited. Others say his company prospered while they suffered.

State records show that Jim Pillen or family members have at some point owned or operated at least 108 livestock facilities— mostly hog farms — in Nebraska. The state’s database doesn’t track current ownership, making it difficult to assess how many facilities they currently own.

By Matthew Hansen

Matthew Hansen is the editor of the Flatwater Free Press. Hansen spent 16 years at Nebraska newspapers, as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and then a reporter and metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. The native of Red Cloud and one-time intern at the Red Cloud Chief and the Hastings Tribune now lives in Omaha and is married to Sarah Baker-Hansen, a longtime Nebraska food writer and restaurant critic.

7 Comments

I have never met Jim Pillen, but I am guessing by his age that he started out as a veternarian in a time when there was not a lot of money to be made in farming. Did he come from “old money” or did he pull himself up by his bootstraps?
The deathbell of the family farm began ringing in the late 70s’ and early 80s’ with hyperinflation running 16-18%. The only way forward for farming was to operate on economies of scale. Obviously Jim Pillen saw that.
The family farm was never about farming, it was about a way of life. It was a hard life but rich in family and community. Today’s woke generation has no interest in hard work.

How did you read all of this and end up spewing nonsense about a “woke generation”? The main premise of this article is that his operations are polluting the waterways (and probably air and land) of the local communities near said operations. Furthermore, the article states that he is one of the largest pork producers in the country, a far-cry from a family farm. And plenty of us in the “younger generations” work hard, I have a degree in Animal Science just like Pillen for example. The problem we have is that our hard work isn’t being rewarded. All we want is a chance at a good life like the generations before us had, but you all insist on selfishly pulling up the ladder behind you while chiding and scolding us along the way. Me thinks you spend too much time on Facebook reading nonsense propaganda.

Was anything done about Pillen’s nitrates? Or does he get away with it because he’s the governor? Also, what ever happened to the facts about the young man who died on Pillen’s pig farm?

Eat the rich! ( or anyone who has more than you). I see it all the time. Especially in families. Envy can really get ugly.

The Governor’s actions before and especially since these stories surfaced are clear evidence of corruption. And this is the governor who wishes to reduce property tax. Guess who will save the most money if the legislature agrees to reduce property tax. I guess Governor Pillen thinks he can continue to fool us. I hope he is wrong again. I hope also that there will be criminal proceedings in his near future.

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