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COLUMBUS, Neb. — Jim Pillen makes it very clear that family is critical to success.

He’s not talking just about his biological family, but the others who make up the workforce for Pillen Family Farms, which recently topped the 1,000-employee threshold.

To compete in food production today, Pillen said, precision agriculture is a must, “but still in the end, it’s about great people and that’s not going to change.”

What started as 60 sows on a dirt lot in Platte County has expanded to dozens of barns and thousands of hogs in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa, with gene centers mostly in Nebraska but also in Canada, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

While Pillen may be known now for his swine operations, his name in high school and college was most likely found on the sports page. An all-state quarterback and linebacker at Lakeview High School north of Columbus, he went on to letter three times as a Nebraska Cornhusker, twice earned first-team All-Big Eight Conference honors for the Blackshirt secondary. As a senior in 1978, he was first-team academic all-conference and all-American.

He was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2004, one year after his older brother, Clete, also a three-year letterman at Nebraska.

At UNL, Jim Pillen was in the pre-veterinary program and finished with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, followed by four years in the veterinary program at Kansas State University. With a DVM degree, he joined a veterinary practice for a year and a half, working extensively — and unenjoyably — with horses.

“I’ve never touched one since,” he said from his company headquarters in Columbus. And that’s good for the swine industry and his family of employees — and both of their futures.

“Our two oldest children are back in the business,” Pillen said. “We’re working hard for our family to be successful for generations. Our generation doesn’t like to think about that, but that’s why there are fewer and fewer families in agriculture.

“We’re 60-year-olds. We don’t like to talk about the end, but we have to.”

If that isn’t done, it’s not good for families or small communities, Pillen said. “We have to have a plan to keep moving. That’s not easy, but it’s really important.”

The success of families, he said, doesn’t happen by luck and it doesn’t mean it will be equal for all, but it can be fair.

He compared the future of families and small towns — success and failure can be a matter of planning or not planning.

Pillen Family Farms owns about 90 percent of its barns scattered across the upper Midwest countryside. That’s putting a lot of faith in those employees who manage and operate those barns.

“We are what we are because of the families that are part of the team,” he said. “We have it so everyone has a good quality of life. It doesn’t fit any other way.”

That goes for the animals, too.

Until the 1970s, hogs were raised similar to cattle and crops, with more of an annual plan.

“Now we raise pigs in barns, with the goal to have the same week 52 weeks a year,” Pillen explained. “Pigs don’t care if it’s New Year’s Day. They don’t take the day off. They don’t spend time out in the pasture.

“We have to meet the pigs’ needs around every team members’ needs. We can only do what we do because of our great people.”

Jim and Suzanne Pillen have been married 40 years. Their two oldest, Sarah and Brock, now work for the family company. Another daughter, Polly, lives in Philadelphia, and youngest son, Izic, is a student at Scotus Central Catholic in Columbus. They have seven grandchildren. Brother Clete also has been part of the family operation.

The family involvement has given Jim an opportunity to give back. He is in his second four-year term on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

“It’s an extraordinary privilege to serve. Access to education is a high priority,” he said. “I have a great belief in the University of Nebraska. When I think of all the things in life, that degree was the game changer. The university has a great impact on the state of Nebraska.”

Pillen Family Farms has had an impact, too.

The pigs grow. A couple thousand newly weaned pigs may fill a semi-trailer, but it could take nine semis to move them out at finished weight. The list of sites and number of barns continue to grow, and that means the company’s offices need to grow, as well.

New headquarters are being built in northwest Columbus, near the Columbus Community Hospital that opened in 2002, and the new Columbus Senior High School.

“We’ve been blessed, but we’ve also grown apart. We’re building so we can all collaborate together again,” Pillen said. “The future is incredibly bright.”

Terry Anderson can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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