Pork processor partially owned by Pillen gets $25 million federal grant

Governor, company say he wasn’t involved in grant process

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen is one of about 200 farmer-owners of a pork processing plant in Fremont, Neb., that was awarded a $25 million federal grant to help add a second shift.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen speaks in support of State Sen. Tom Brewer’s proposal to allow concealed carry of handguns without a permit or training on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner) 

Pillen, whose family runs a Columbus-based hog operation, Pillen Family Farms, is also part-owner of Wholestone Farms, a pork processing company that revived the former Hormel plant in Fremont.

Wholestone received the grant last month as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts to help smaller local meat processors compete against larger national and international conglomerates.

The governor’s most recent financial interests disclosure form, filed in March with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, still listed Pillen as a Wholestone board member.

The governor’s office and the company said he no longer serves on the board. They said he stepped back from the board and from Pillen Family Farms during his campaign for governor.

His children are handling his business affairs while he is in office, they said. Pillen’s name was not listed on the paperwork Wholestone filed for the grant, the USDA confirmed.

Pillen’s office said he learned about the grant after a reporter’s inquiry. None of the company’s owners participated in the application process, Wholestone President and CEO Luke Minion said.

“No owners, including anyone from the Pillen family, were involved in the process,” Minion said.

Governor’s spokeswoman Laura Strimple shared a statement:

Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue announces the group’s endorsement Tuesday of University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen at the Capitol. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner) 

“Governor Pillen’s family business has a minority ownership in Wholestone Farms. He holds no position with the company and … has not attended any meetings with Wholestone since taking office.”

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska said he sees no legal issues in Wholestone pursuing the grant. But, he said, Pillen needs to be clearer and more transparent about his business interests while he is in office.

The public, Gould said, has a right to know Pillen has a financial stake in the company. And federal taxpayers should know, too, so they can see later if they got their money’s worth, Gould said.

Minion said in March the grant would help fund a second shift and double the production capacity of the Fremont plant to nearly 6 million pigs a year.

The company hopes to finish construction this year and open the second line when market conditions for pork make the most sense, he said. That would add 1,000 workers to the 1,300 there already.

“A grant like this, in terms of its focus, it really fits us well,” Minion said. “We’re really grateful to have received it. And we will use it in the best interests of taxpayers.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said USDA was “excited about this one,” when announcing the award during the National Pork Industry Forum in Florida.

He touted the value of having farmers own more steps in pork production, Farm Journal’s Pork reported. Owning the plants helps farmers keep the next generation on the farm, he said.

Wholestone, which has a grocery label now on its pork in the Midwest, is growing. It’s got a new partner, Prestage Foods of Eagle Grove, Iowa, that is working on an Iowa pork processing plant. And the company has bought land in Sioux Falls, S.D., to build a possible third plant.