Jim Pillen, then a younger businessman, stands outside one of his hog operations north of Monroe in 2003. Some nearby residents and environmental advocates were then protesting Pillen’s plan to build large hog operations near a historic church near Lindsay. Pillen was then growing his company to become the largest pork producer in the state, and one of the biggest in the country. Photo by Kiley Cruse of the Omaha World-Herald.

In November, Jim Pillen was elected Nebraska’s governor. At the time, he was financially connected to about 40 companies, including the company he spent three decades expanding into one of the largest hog producers in the country, Pillen Family Farms. 

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The governor has not said whether he has sold his business holdings. One of the best ways officeholders can avoid conflicts of interest is to sell their assets, but Nebraska law does not require it. One possible conflict of interest is that Pillen now oversees the agency that regulates the hog farms he set up. He has also advocated for policies that would benefit the entire pork industry.

His first trade mission was to Vietnam, an emerging U.S. pork market. As pork consumption in the U.S. has stagnated, producers have looked for places to sell. Vietnam is a “really really important market for beef and also pork,” Pillen told Brownfield Ag News after returning from his trade mission. A pork processing company that Pillen sat on the board of until this year has also sold its product to Vietnam, according to shipping records. “That doesn’t look good,” one ethics expert said.

In about six years in the 1990s, he built one of the largest pork producers in the country. Pillen started his hog business with his father in the 1980s, but the business took off in the early 1990s. He entered into partnerships with other pork producers, which expanded his footprint. In 1992, when he incorporated the business that would become Pillen Family Farms, he owned a few hog farms. By 1998, he was the second-largest hog producer in Nebraska, and the 22nd-largest in the country, according to Successful Farming. Pillen Family Farms is now ranked 15th in the United States.

In the 2010s, Pillen consolidated his businesses. He bought out his business partners and changed his company’s name. One business partner had retired but was expecting payouts from the share she still owned. When she noticed Pillen’s company had not distributed two monthly payments in a row, she contacted Pillen. According to the partner, Pillen initially agreed to provide the payouts but then changed his mind. Eventually, the partner sold her shares, which she said were valued at about $5 million, to Pillen for about $2.3 million.

One of his major investments was involved in a controversial campaign in South Dakota. At the time he was elected governor, Pillen sat on the board of a meatpacking company, Wholestone Farms. (His son, Brock, sat on the board, too.) In 2022, Wholestone announced plans to build a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Worried about possible pollution from the plant, a group gathered enough signatures to propose a moratorium on slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls on the November ballot. Wholestone created its own political action committee to counter the group’s messaging, and Brock Pillen donated to the campaign. On the day Jim Pillen was elected governor, Sioux Falls residents voted against the proposed ban.

The governor’s office and Pillen Family Farms did not respond to specific questions. In a statement, Pillen Family Farms said, “Our business has always been guided by our core principles: 1) Do what is right; 2) Do the best you can; and 3) Treat others the way you want to be treated. These commitments will never change.”

Type of work:

Investigative / Enterprise In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.