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Who’s Buying Nebraska?

Who’s Buying Nebraska?

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Who’s Buying Nebraska? Corporations, investors grabbing giant chunks of Nebraska farmland

This story was originally published by the Flatwater Free Press.

There’s never a Black Friday discount when a piece of Nebraska farmland hits the market in 2023, be it a fertile field in the Platte River Valley or a vast swath of Sandhills pastureland.

The market’s hot. And corporate farms, both in-state and out, are dipping into their deep pockets to claim the increasingly pricey agricultural land they desire.

The nine buyers who spent the most money on Nebraska farmland in the past five years are all corporate farming operations, real estate developers or investment firms, an analysis by the Flatwater Free Press found.

Jeff Burnett runs one of them. He keeps his eyes peeled for listings of Nebraska ranch land from his home near Cheyenne, Wyoming. His livestock and cattle operation recently paid $20 million for nearly 28,000 acres of ground in Keith County and Arthur County on the southern edge of the Sandhills.

That massive purchase made Burnett’s Wyoming-based operation the second-largest buyer of Nebraska land, by acre, in the past five years.

Ranch hand Mike Goodman, left, and ranch manager Frank Thompson ride through the prairie grass on a ranch located north of Keystone, Nebraska. The ranch is owned by a Wyoming-based ranching operation run by Jeff Burnett, which recently paid $20 million for nearly 28,000 acres of ground on the Sandhills’ southern edge. A Flatwater Free Press analysis of five years of land sales shows that four of the top five buyers of land by acre are headquartered outside Nebraska. photo by Ryan Soderlin for the Flatwater Free Press

And, increasingly, small local farmers like Bill Alward strike out. Alward moved to his wife’s native Nebraska a few years ago and started a small operation, where he raises dozens of cattle and hogs near Fort Calhoun.

He’s trying to expand. He can’t afford it.

“There were some tracts that were available when we first moved here, and I kind of regret not pursuing those because now it’s completely off the table,” Alward says. “I mean, the price per acre … it’s insanity. There’s no way we can make that pencil out.”

The average price of Nebraska farmland has shot up 41% since 2018, to a record-high $3,835 per acre, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln annual survey.

The buyers of that land – especially the biggest chunks – include multinational corporations, out-of-state corporate farms and investors who live hundreds or thousands of miles away, according to five years of land sales gathered by a UNL data journalism class and analyzed by the Flatwater Free Press.

Seven of the top 10 buyers who spent the most money in the past five years – often for pricier farm ground or suburban development – are located outside Nebraska, the analysis shows.

Together, these seven out-of-state owners spent $246 million on Nebraska land.

“(Investors are) competitively bidding it, alongside of area farmers and ranchers. And so these investors, to some degree, would cause some of that increase in price,” said Adam Pavelka, a Hastings broker and farm manager for Agri Affiliates, a Nebraska farm real estate agency.

The Flatwater Free Press spent months analyzing 12,700 sales of Nebraska farmland and ranch land made in the open market between 2018 and 2022, then chopping through a thicket of limited liability companies that often hide the actual buyer. Among the findings:

  • The single biggest buyer scooping up the largest amount of ag land in Nebraska is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, through a nonprofit tied to a P.O. box in Utah.
  • Great Plains Farms, headquartered in North Carolina, spent $65 million on land in Cherry, Dawes, and Sheridan counties in the northwest part of the state. Belltown Farms, which ranks No. 2 in sale amount, is an organic farming company with operations in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas.
  • Gov. Jim Pillen’s company Platte Center West was among the top spenders after acquiring hog farms, most in eastern Nebraska and some previously owned by The Maschhoffs, an Illinois-based corporate pork producer. The sale amount included buildings and other infrastructure in addition to the land itself.
  • Some of the land purchased will no longer be farmland. The sales data show real estate developers acquiring farmland near Nebraska cities and towns to build homes and apartments. Tech companies like Facebook and Google have invested millions to turn land originally zoned agricultural into data centers.
  • Oft-rumored foreign buyers of Nebraska land like China did not appear in the land sales data, but buyers from Canada and subsidiaries of several multinational corporations, including shipping behemoth ULINE, are among the top buyers of land.

There are caveats to these conclusions. The state property sales data, compiled from county assessors’ transaction records and provided by the Nebraska Department of Revenue, contain errors. The records sometimes list the incorrect sale amount. There are sometimes duplicate records, potentially inflating the total amount paid. Reporters at the Flatwater Free Press manually corrected some data points for top buyers, but could not identify and weed out all data entry errors.

But the data still offer insight into where these buyers are from.

Four of the five biggest buyers who acquired the most acres – often ranch land – in open-market sales are large-scale, multi-state operations headquartered in Utah, Wyoming, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Out-of-state individuals and companies still make up less than 10% of the total number of buyers of Nebraska land in the past five years. But out-of-state buyers are more prominent at the highest levels: Nearly a third of the top 100 buyers who bought the most land and paid the most in that time frame were people or companies from outside Nebraska.

This series, “Who’s Buying Nebraska?” dives into the massive farmland purchases by churches, foreign companies and other notable buyers like billionaires like Bill Gates and Ted Turner.

Through the analysis, interviews with experts, landowners, interested buyers and Nebraska farmers and ranchers, the Flatwater Free Press seeks to answer who’s buying land, why, and how these purchases shape the reality of modern Nebraska agriculture.

Spiraling land prices are of course good for sellers. But the reality is that many buyers who can afford to pay the highest farmland prices don’t themselves plant soybeans, brand cattle or harvest corn.

“Most people can get pretty much the same price for grain, but where competition plays out is who can bid most aggressively for land,” said Chuck Hassebrook, former director of the Center for Rural Affairs. “So it is the price of land that keeps ordinary folks out.”

For as long as there has been Nebraska farmland for sale, there have been land barons scooping it up.

William Scully, an Irish citizen and one of the original foreign owners of Nebraska land, bought up and leased more than 65,000 acres of farmland in Gage and Nuckolls counties in the 1880s, soon after the U.S. government began to push Native Americans off their traditional land while encouraging white settlers to farm Nebraska.

Starting in 1888, a cattleman named Bartlett Richards claimed, bought and in some cases illegally fenced an estimated 500,000 acres of Sandhills ranch land while co-founding the iconic Spade Ranch.

But even as land barons like Richards and Scully became rich and infamous, it remained possible for Nebraskans to make a living on small plots of land that they owned and passed through generations.

Hooper-area farmer Sharon Thernes, 85, remembers that her father raised a family of four children on 80 acres. He grew crops and raised cows, chickens and pigs on that land.

Today, she says, it would take 10 times as many acres to support a family of that size. And that land today would be lined almost exclusively with row crops, she said.

Technology spurred this transition to specialized monocropping and concentrated livestock production, says Bruce Johnson, retired UNL agricultural economics professor who started and ran the Nebraska Farm Real Estate Report survey for nearly 40 years. It’s one reason, he said, why farm and ranch operations are expanding in size while dwindling in number.

Johnson started noticing this trend toward bigger and fewer ag operations in the 1970s, even before he began surveying farmland value for the university. He’s also lived this history – as a child, his father farmed 320 acres in Knox County.

“It was just not an operation that allowed me to come back to (farm),” Johnson said. “You have to adapt.”

The trend accelerated during the 1980s farm crisis, as more and more farmers sold their land amid plummeting cash crop prices and depreciating farmland value. In the aftermath, some financial management companies began to specialize in farmland investment, wrote Madeleine Fairbairn, a University of California, Santa Cruz sociology professor in the book “Fields of Gold,”a history of the financialization of farmland.

The reforms rolled out by the federal government in the next decade provided a cushion for ag producers. It also reduced the risk of farmland as an investment, Johnson said.

Buying up farmland as an investment vehicle picked up steam after the 2008 financial crisis, Fairbairn wrote. Many investors now see it as a hedge against inflation.

In 1982, Nebraska voters passed a law that reined in corporations’ ability to own ag land. But that law, known as Initiative 300, was struck down by a federal circuit court in 2007. Nebraska now has virtually no restrictions on corporate ownership of land – fewer restrictions than the seven other states across the Midwest and Great Plains that at one point passed an Initiative 300-like law, said Anthony Schutz, a UNL professor specializing in agricultural law.

“Absent some legislative change or something of that nature, I think the investor pool is gonna continue,” said Pavelka.

These investors often hire local helpers – sometimes farm managers like Pavelka – or rent out the ground.

It’s common for beginning farmers to start by renting land. But for Alward, it’s proven a challenge to find the 150 acres he’s looking to lease next year for his dozens of cattle and pigs. Having pastures next to each other would save him serious time. Owning those pastures, instead of renting, would over the long haul save him money.

His dilemma is one understood by many younger American farmers.

About 10,000 young farmers and ranchers surveyed nationwide reported owning slightly more than 80 acres on average, according to a 2022 survey. A little more than half are actually owners, while just less than half work as managers or hired hands on someone else’s operation.

And owning land is key, in large part because it helps agricultural producers withstand market turbulence, said Hassebrook, who was a lead proponent of Initiative 300.

“Even if you’re not super wealthy, that ownership of land that’s partially somewhat paid off becomes an enormous value to you in weathering the dry years and low price years,” he said.

It can pay for a lifetime, or several. Rangelands used for grazing are often bought up in large chunks and added to existing ranches, Johnson said. That land may stay in a family for generations.

“As you have larger-sized holdings, the incidence of available land to buy and the ownership transition becomes less and less,” Johnson said.

Burnett, for example, isn’t looking to sell anytime soon, even though sale prices are high.

His Wyoming-based operation uses the 28,000-acre ranch land in west-central Nebraska’s Keith and Arthur counties to graze 1-year-old cattle from spring till fall. The Sandhills is in a different weather belt than much of his other land, and thus offers him some drought protection if it’s dry in eastern Colorado or eastern Wyoming.

Technology is another big reason acquiring large amounts of Nebraska land makes sense for his business, he said. Forty years ago, hauling animals 130 miles would have been unimaginable. Now he receives text alerts on his phone when his livestock water tanks at the ranch run dry.

The ranch land he bought was the right size available at the time, he said.

He wants to make sure he’s building an enterprise with opportunities for the next generation of ranchers in his family.

“We’re long-term players,” said Burnett. “For the cards that I can see today, I would say we’d be more apt to be on the buyer side than on the seller side.”

He doesn’t see himself as an absentee owner, living just across the Wyoming border and visiting often.

“If I pulled up to a neighbor’s house in Henry, Nebraska, or Keystone, Nebraska, or wherever in Nebraska, I would like for my neighbors to know who I am, and be glad that I pulled in,” he said.

The change in Nebraska’s farmland ownership structure, experts say, can have a long-lasting impact on the environment, food production, local economies and the lives and livelihoods of rural residents.

The rise of financial investors, aging of old farmers who rent out land, and farm family heirs who keep their family land but don’t farm anymore, mean that many of today’s agricultural landowners aren’t personally doing the farmwork.

In some eastern Nebraska counties, more than half of the farmland is titled to an absentee owner, often farm family heirs and investors, Johnson said. The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture land ownership survey indicates that a third of Nebraska agricultural landlords have never farmed.

The growth of absentee owners is not unique to Nebraska. In neighboring Iowa, 27% of agricultural land purchases last year were connected to an investor buyer — including local farmers and non-local businesses — up from 21% in 2019, according to an Iowa State University survey.

These absentee owners do contribute to the local property tax base. But they don’t live in the community, go to the grocery store or send their children to the local school.

Instead, they extract value from the land, and send the profits elsewhere, which “can distort local economies and impair the health of rural communities,” said Jessica Shoemaker, a UNL law professor.

“When an owner is instead an investor making decisions in a boardroom in Chicago or New York, we worry that those decisions might miss some of the local complexity and may not care as much about local impacts,” Shoemaker wrote in an email.

A higher rate of absent agricultural landowners in an area corresponds to lower local employment rate, a 2021 USDA report found.

The USDA report identified no association between soil health and absentee owners. But some also worry that they aren’t the best stewards of Nebraska’s soil and water.

Absentee landowners have an opportunity to push for best farming practices, Johnson said.

“I think a lot of these people are very professionally oriented and probably also focusing on long-term good stewardship,” he said. “And sometimes even maybe putting a little pressure on those who farmed the land to (say) ‘Hey, can we be sure that we are not diminishing our resource base?’”

While it’s often harder for even mid-sized farmers to buy land, it’s not impossible.

In 2020, Hooper farmer Sharon Thernes took out loans to buy 230 acres of land she had rented for more than 50 years.

Thernes’ grandson Tyler now runs the day-to-day operations on her farm. He also purchased 74 acres of land for himself three years ago.

Thernes has spent a lifetime heading out on the family farm “at two o’clock in the morning to see if the cow is having her calf and carry it to the house to warm it up.”

She’s not optimistic that her family will retain that full control – that independence – for many more generations to come.

“Eventually … it will be huge conglomerates that are owning the farm,” Thernes said. “… and our grandchildren will be employees.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The post Who’s Buying Nebraska? Corporations, investors grabbing giant chunks of Nebraska farmland appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

Speaking out

Three Nebraska tribes are done losing land. Now they’re buying.

Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor

Covered swine barns dot the landscape near Platte Center, where tens of thousands of hogs are raised and fed.

Many of these barns are owned by a local boy who grew up a few miles west of the village, built his small family farm into a global pork empire and then became governor.

Gov. Jim Pillen’s hog operations bring jobs and prosperity to this area near his hometown. They also may bring risk to Platte Center’s drinking water.

The town had to dig a new municipal well three years ago, after another well recorded nitrate at nearly 12 parts per million. That’s higher than the level the federal government says is safe to drink.

Ingesting high levels of nitrate has been linked to a variety of health conditions: A syndrome that can kill babies, thyroid disease, birth defects and cancers, including cancer in children. Nationally, Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.

Nebraska counties with elevated nitrate levels are often the places where children suffer higher rates of brain cancer, lymphoma and leukemia, a recent University of Nebraska Medical Center study shows.

Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, says the area surrounding town has seen a handful of cancer cases this year.

“When I was young, there wasn’t that (many) people with cancer. Now it’s wild,” he said. “Prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer, just everything. I just think it’s got to be the food we’re eating or the water we’re drinking.”

That’s why Greisen is now working with Natural Resources District experts as they map nitrate levels inside Platte Center-area aquifers – studying where the nitrate may be flowing from.

There are many potential culprits, including the nitrogen fertilizer applied for decades to corn fields surrounding this small town.

Another potential culprit: The Platte Center West hog farm. The farm, 6 miles northwest of town, recorded a 61.5-parts-per-million nitrate level – six times above the legal drinking water limit – in one of its monitoring wells last year.

Another nearby hog farm, Janssen Platte Center Nursery, which tested 21.2 parts per million nitrate in April, has shown “strong elevated nitrates and chloride levels,” according to a groundwater review by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy last year.

Both of these hog farms are registered to an owner at 4438 Old Mill Court in Columbus, the headquarters of Pillen Family Farms.

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

Greisen suspects most of the nitrate comes from anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields decades ago. He also said that there’s a “good possibility” that hog farms with high nitrate readings affect the area’s water quality.

“It throws a red flag, it really does,” he said.

Since 1993, Pillen and his family have owned or operated at least 108 livestock facilities – most of them hog barns – spread throughout the state, but clustered in eastern Nebraska, according to permitting records.

Only 27 of these facilities are required by the state to have monitoring wells installed on them.

Sixteen of those 27 have recorded nitrate levels higher than 50 parts per million at least once since monitoring began on site, according to a Flatwater Free Press review.

A few of them have violated the state’s livestock waste control rules. They have housed more hogs than permitted, the state alleged, failed to report wastewater discharge into a marsh and submitted groundwater test results and manure nutrient analyses late – all of which could conceivably increase the risk of nitrate contamination, research shows.

Pillen is far from the only big hog producer facing these issues. In many places, waste from concentrated livestock operations is a major contributor to ground and surface water nitrate pollution, the research noted.

These high readings on Pillen-affiliated livestock facilities result in little state action, the review shows. Like other hog farms and feedlots that have reported high nitrate in Nebraska, the elevated levels don’t automatically trigger any state intervention, as the Flatwater Free Press previously reported. The NDEE examines these results individually to determine potential causes and solutions, said Amanda Woita, a department spokesperson.

Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, stands near a decommissioned well in the village northwest of Columbus. Platte Center and neighboring towns have faced escalating nitrate levels in drinking water sources – and six-figure price tags to pay for new wells that can deliver cleaner water – in recent years.
A likely culprit of the high nitrate is the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields for decades. Another potential culprit: The nearly 50 livestock operations, some hog farms owned by Pillen Family Farms, that surround the village. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

To be clear: No one is directly drinking from these monitoring wells on hog farms. But some of that nitrate will move along with groundwater, experts say, potentially posing a risk to residents living downstream and contributing to Nebraska’s nitrate problem.

Pillen did not respond to multiple interview requests from Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest about his hog operations.

In a December 2022 interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Pillen portrayed nitrate pollution as a problem largely stemming from the past. He said much improvement has been made, and that remaining problems will take time to address. “And if there are a few silly things going on, it’s easy to be able to identify that and granularly fix that,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the governor directed all questions to Pillen Family Farms.

Pillen Family Farms CEO Sarah Pillen, the governor’s daughter, sent a general statement when reporters requested an interview. She said the company “(has) always placed a strong commitment on being positive environmental stewards of the land.”

She noted the company employs a 17-member team who work to protect Nebraska’s groundwater and ensure safe nutrient management.

She and other Pillen Family Farms executives did not respond to multiple email questions about high nitrate detected on specific hog farms, potential causes of these high readings and the company’s remediation efforts.

PC West, owned by Pillen Family Farms, is one of dozens of livestock operations near Platte Center. It’s upstream of the village, which has faced mounting nitrate issues in its drinking water. A monitoring well at PC West has recorded nitrate levels as high as 61.5 parts per million. Drone video by Matt Waite for the Flatwater Free Press

Many Pillen hog barns have few to no known nitrate issues, data show. Nitrate readings at modern hog confinements should be low unless waste storage pit leaks or manure is overapplied in nearby fields, said Chris Jones, former University of Iowa water quality researcher and author of book “The Swine Republic.”

Other Pillen hog barns look much like the hundreds of other pig farms spread across Nebraska, which tend to show at least slightly elevated nitrate levels at some points. Ray Ward, founder of a leading Nebraska water testing lab, said nitrate readings near livestock waste lagoons are “quite variable,” from near-zero levels to very high numbers.

Still other Pillen operations, like a Holt County hog farm, have recorded nitrate levels higher than Jones says he’s ever seen.

The Holt County farm, called CRB Finish, had multiple nitrate readings higher than 200 parts per million between 2015 and 2017.

In 2016, it recorded a reading of 445 parts per million – nearly 45 times the EPA standard for safe drinking water.

“If you’ve got a monitoring well that’s 400 parts per million and there’s drinking water wells in the area, that should be a 911,” Jones said.

Another expert, Rebecca Muenich of the University of Arkansas, said it’s a “huge, huge, huge human health concern” if nitrate anywhere near this level makes it into the drinking wells of nearby residents.

“That’s water that you can sell as fertilizer for sure,” said Muenich, who specializes in analyzing water quality data near livestock facilities.

Hough Nursery in Bellwood. A downstream monitoring well tested 114 parts per million nitrate in April 2023. That’s more than 11 times the legal limit for nitrate in drinking water. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

The nitrate levels in that Holt County hog farm monitoring well have dropped markedly since 2020, dipping to near zero in November 2022.

Many other monitoring wells on livestock facilities tied to Pillen Family Farms continue to show flashing nitrate warning signs.

Nine different hog farms that the state lists as being Pillen-affiliated reported nitrate higher than 70 parts per million this year, according to an FFP review of groundwater reports.

Two are near Platte Center, population 355. The monitoring well at Pillen’s Production Farms, a hog farm south of the village, had water tested at 70 parts per million nitrate in April. Another farm, Oconee Finisher, reported 76 parts per million this year, the highest level since it started monitoring.

Both are downstream of the town and have less impact on the town’s drinking water. But residents of rural Platte County – many of whom get their drinking water from private wells that aren’t required to be tested – are still at risk, experts say.

At least seven domestic wells are situated within three miles downstream of Pillen’s Production Farms, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of the state well registry found.

Platte Center is surrounded by nearly 50 livestock facilities within a five-mile radius, including feedlots and hog barns. Many don’t have monitoring wells installed on site. The three that do, including one not owned by Pillen Family Farms, all show significantly elevated nitrate levels.

The town recently drilled a new, deeper well that’s currently delivering clean water.

The project’s price tag: roughly $500,000. The state footed nearly half the bill.

Greisen is worried about Platte Center’s future, because he knows what is happening nearby.

The village of Lindsay has spent $826,000 digging a new well and running pipes into the village. One of that 283-person village’s wells has regularly violated the 10-ppm drinking water standard since 2010.

Bellwood is also under the threat of high nitrate.

Greisen wonders, and worries: Is more polluted water coming Platte Center’s way?

A nitrate mystery

Sometimes called “liquid gold,” hog manure contains a high concentration of nitrogen matter, which converts to nitrate when exposed to oxygen. Nitrate is great fertilizer for crops. But it can also easily find its way into groundwater, which supplies 85% of Nebraskans with drinking water.

The federal Clean Water Act gives states the authority to monitor water at certain livestock operations. Many states mandate the monitoring of nitrate because of potential water contamination.

Experts say these monitoring wells may pick up high nitrate originating from sources unrelated to livestock. The high nitrate detected could reflect plumes of nitrate, generated years ago, now entering the water table. It may also come from commercial fertilizer – many of Nebraska’s hog farms are near cornfields.

But sometimes feeding operations are the direct source of nitrate, depending on how they store feed, manage wastewater and apply manure to surrounding land, according to the NDEE and outside experts.

That’s why the NDEE typically requires multiple-well monitoring programs on certain sites — at least one upstream that indicates background contaminant levels, and two downstream.

High nitrate readings in a downstream well can indicate that the feedlot or hog barn has released large amounts of nitrogen into the aquifer, said Dan Snow, director of the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.

Snow said the high nitrate and spikes of ammonia at CRB Finish, the Pillen hog farm in Holt County, seem to signify multiple leaking events in the wastewater distribution system. It appeared a spill “allowed the ammonia and other contaminants to flow directly into the aquifer,” he told the Flatwater Free Press, after reviewing the groundwater monitoring data.

Pillen Family Farms executives didn’t respond to multiple Flatwater Free Press emails asking about the potential cause of the high nitrate.

The soil is also very sandy in Holt County, Snow said, so nitrate from animal waste can get quickly washed into the water table. “Maybe having animal feeding operations in that part of the state is not a good idea, just because it’s much easier to contaminate the local groundwater,” he said.

Hog manure is often applied to nearby fields to avoid high transportation costs, thus exposing nearby bodies of water and groundwater to contamination risks, said Muenich, the University of Arkansas water expert.

“… It can be accidental application or deliberate; it doesn’t matter,” Snow said. “If it’s at the surface … and the plant doesn’t use it, it can eventually end up at the water table.”

State regulators point out that there are restrictions for livestock facilities like the Pillen Family Farms hog barns. They must sit at least 100 feet from an existing domestic well and 1,000 feet from an existing municipal well.

Map by Hanscom Park Studio

Some animal feeding operations are also asked to monitor nearby drinking wells, said Carla Felix, an NDEE spokesperson, in an email.

No hog barn is known to have contaminated a rural resident’s drinking water, Felix said.

“NDEE is not aware of any documented incidences where a private well was impacted by a (Livestock Waste Control Facility),” she wrote.

And she noted that any investigation isn’t guaranteed to identify the source of high nitrate for a simple reason: Groundwater moves.

Jones, the Iowa water expert, suspects that this mystery about where high nitrate comes from isn’t one that regulators are clamoring to solve.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental nonprofit, gave Nebraska an overall rating of “low” for what it says is a lack of livestock operation data transparency.

To Jones, keeping the sources of high nitrate mysterious is the point.

“The uncertainty about individual operations … the industry uses that … to avoid responsibility and make the case that it can’t be regulated,” he said.

Problems in Hastings

In 2006, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee reported that workers at a Hastings-area hog farm were pumping hog waste onto a nearby federal wetlands area. State regulators later alleged that the hog farm, co-owned by Pillen Family Farms had “allowed or caused a discharge of livestock waste” onto the wetlands, then failed to report the spill.

In a separate incident, farm employees constructed a PVC pipe without a permit. They used the pipe to drain a storage pit into a freshwater channel, regulators alleged.

The operation near Hastings, named Inland Foods, eventually entered a court-ordered agreement with state regulators and paid a civil penalty.

Inland Foods is one of a dozen Pillen Family Farms livestock operations that have violated state regulations in the past three decades, a review of NDEE documents shows.

A notice of violation sent by the state to Pillen in 2006 about an unreported waste discharge from a hog farm he co-owned, Inland Foods, to nearby wetlands in the Hastings area. Photo excerpted from Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy documents

Current executives at Pillen Family Farms didn’t respond when asked about specific violations of state rules.

In a statement, Sarah Pillen touted the company’s general environmental protection measures, describing them as “far beyond regulatory requirements.” The company works closely with state regulators, she said. In the company’s history, she said, it has never had a permit revoked. (Read Sarah Pillen’s full statement here.)

The Hastings-area farm didn’t have groundwater monitoring when it paid a penalty for violating state rules.

In 2011, state regulators recommended the installation of monitoring wells. The nitrate readings came back high.

An inspection later that year suggested the hog farm violated state rules by housing more hogs than its permit allowed.

High nitrate on site has continued. A downstream monitoring well detected a level of 77.8 parts per million in May. A 2021 NDEE report concluded that “this facility is impacting groundwater quality with a depth to water of 85-100 feet.”

The high nitrate readings didn’t surprise Marty Stange, Hastings’ environmental supervisor. He said local construction projects might have altered groundwater flow, and high nitrate levels might not necessarily reflect the hog farm’s manure management.

The NDEE works with livestock operations it has deemed to have impacted groundwater, Felix said. Sometimes it orders these facilities to do things such as increase monitoring, plant trees or relocate lagoons, which can cost millions of dollars.

There’s no public record of NDEE further investigating or otherwise acting on its 2021 report. Woita, the NDEE spokesperson, declined to say whether the department has worked with Inland Foods, the hog farm co-owned by Pillen Family Farms near Hastings, on any remediation.

Despite record-keeping rules, state regulations aren’t stopping high nitrate from showing up in water near livestock operations, advocates say. The leaching of nutrients from manure into groundwater and surface water can kill fish, cause algae bloom and threaten drinking water, research shows.

State rules require hog barns to document where manure is applied to prevent overapplication.

But Anthony Schutz, a UNL law professor and board member of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said such paperwork doesn’t guarantee good stewardship. After all, it’s nearly impossible for NDEE inspectors to watch every acre.

“You keep a bunch of records. You do a bunch of monitoring. You follow all of the rules that are in the permit. But it turns out the rules in the permit don’t actually require you to not pollute. And so you wind up with … where we are today,” said Schutz.

Stronger guardrails needed?

Last September, a handful of Nebraskans testified at a state hearing on proposed permitting changes for concentrated animal feeding operations. Some testifiers were grassroots organizers. Others farmed small plots of land next to a livestock operation.

Most wanted the state to hold large, industrial farms more accountable.

Algae blooms in a drainage ditch running toward the Platte River along Road M near Road 43 1/2 in Bellwood, Neb., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. The area is home to several livestock facilities, including Hough Nursery, owned by Pillen Family Farms. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

“The water in this state belongs to the people, not to any industrial ag interest,” said Nancy Meyer, a Cedar Bluffs resident, arguing Nebraska is neglecting to protect its groundwater.

“When does the alarm sound loud enough that we stop overloading our soils and waterways with nutrients?” said Ashlen Busick, a testifier from the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, in an interview with the Flatwater Free Press.

But many inside Nebraska’s ag industry are dubious.

Livestock nutrient management consultant Andy Scholting thinks current state regulations already provide ample guardrails.

“We’re doing more in regards to nutrient management compared to other states in the Midwest,” he said, noting the state mandates more frequent soil tests before manure application.

Osceola farmer Kevin Peterson owns a 4,800-head hog farm and serves on the state Environmental Quality Council, a 17-person, governor-appointed board that adopts some NDEE regulations.

Peterson thinks the current regulations, and a heavy emphasis on educating farmers, are working as intended.

Algae blooms in a drainage ditch running toward the Platte River along Road M near Road 43 1/2 in Bellwood, Neb., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. The area is home to several livestock facilities, including Hough Nursery, owned by Pillen Family Farms. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

After all, overapplying manure is expensive, he said. And Nebraska farmers are increasingly heeding the nitrate problem and taking voluntary action to address it, Peterson said.

“It’s a lot easier to envision a robber baron sitting in the office … twisting his evil mustache and thinking about how they could destroy the environment in order to make an extra penny,” said Peterson. “I’ve yet to run into any of those folks … I do not think Governor Pillen is one of those.”

As governor, Pillen could strengthen rules and “stop the bleeding,” said Graham Christensen, an Oakland-area farmer who focuses on regenerative agriculture and runs a consulting firm.

“​He has such an opportunity as this known polluter to help bring farmers into a situation where they’re not (polluting), and his operations would benefit from that,” said Christensen.

Pillen could tap into federal funding to promote farming practices that can reduce nitrate leaching, such as planting cover crops, Christensen said. He could step up state regulations on manure application such as requiring buffer strips when manure is applied.

“He’s ignoring the issue. He’s not wanting to meet with anybody on this thing. He’s not publicly addressing our concerns,” Christensen said.

This April, the NDEE published a letter to Nebraskans concerned about the feedlots, hog barns and chicken farms that surround small towns like Platte Center.

The document summarized public comments and the agency’s response to 11 different points of concern over water quality and waste control, after some commenters said the agency didn’t adequately address concerns raised in the rule-making process.

In the April letter, there’s a spot in the document where the NDEE listed any changes it has made in the permit rules in response to these concerns.

In all 11 areas where potential change could occur, the state agency responded with a single word.


Sky Chadde, of Investigate Midwest, contributed to this story.

This is the second in a series. Read the first story here.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The post Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor appeared first on Investigate Midwest.