Luke Runyon

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. I also host KUNC’s live community storytelling events.

I love public radio because I know the power of hearing someone’s story in their own words, using their own voice. You can get a much better sense of who someone is and what their motivations are just by listening to how they speak, and that’s a big part of why I love public radio reporting.

Before covering water at KUNC I covered the agriculture and food beat for five years as the station’s Harvest Public Media reporter. I’ve also reported for Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colo. and Illinois Public Radio in Springfield, Ill. My reports have been featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here & Now and APM's Marketplace. I’m a proud graduate of the University of Illinois’ Public Affairs Reporting program.

My work has been recognized by the Society of Environmental Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association and the Public Media Journalists Association.

When I’m not at the station you can usually find me out exploring the Rocky Mountains with either a pack on my back or skis on my feet (sometimes both at the same time).

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meatpacking plants in the U.S. open during the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday's move comes after more than a dozen beef, pork and poultry plants across the country shut down either temporarily or indefinitely in the past few weeks.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One morning in mid-February, David Herz went to turn on the faucet in his farmhouse outside the small western Colorado town of Paonia, and nothing came out.

Herz is the president of a small water company that purchases treated drinking water from the town for him and a few of his rural neighbors. Small outages are common enough not to raise alarm. Herz started calling around to see what was happening.

"We usually average about one [outage] a year on the line," he said. "Something breaks, and you have to turn the water off. So it's not uncommon."

Throughout the western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that's a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

Few species manipulate their surroundings enough to make big ecological changes. Humans are one. Beavers are another.

At one point, the rodents numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America, changing the ecological workings of countless streams and rivers. As settlers moved West, they hunted and trapped them to near extinction. Now there are new efforts across the Western U.S. to understand what makes them tick, mimic their engineering skills, boost their numbers, and in turn, get us more comfortable with the way they transform rivers and streams.

The Western U.S. is just starting to recover after a prolonged, 16-year drought. A lack of water can force people to take a hard look at how they use it, and make big changes. That's what happened in southern Colorado, where farmers have tried a bold experiment: They're taxing themselves to boost conservation.

Colorado's San Luis Valley is a desperately dry stretch of land, about the same size as New Jersey.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

Americans waste a staggering amount of food. Instead of letting it rot and wreck the environment, some entrepreneurs want to put it to work feeding insects, and see the potential to revolutionize how we feed some of the livestock that provide us our meat.

Phil Taylor's enthusiasm for insects is infectious. The University of Colorado Boulder research ecologist beams as he weaves through a small greenhouse in rural Boulder County, Colorado. A room about the size of a shipping container sits inside.

On the worst day of Greta Horner's life, she was dressed in a burlap robe, waiting by the window for her husband to come home from work.

Ralph Horner, or Ed as his family calls him, should've been pulling in the driveway any minute that morning in June 2014, home from his overnight shift as a maintenance employee at the beef plant in Greeley, Colorado. It's owned by JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, with its North American headquarters a short drive from the Horners' home.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Chickens aren't traditional pets. But with chicken coops springing up in more and more urban and suburban backyards, some owners take just as much pride in their poultry as they do in their dogs or cats — so much so that they're primping and preening them for beauty contests.

 

Our Harvest Desk begins a 3 part look at the meatpacking industry:

Monarch butterflies are disappearing.

Populations of these distinctive black and orange migratory insects have been in precipitous decline for the past 20 years, but scientists aren't exactly sure what's causing them to vanish.

The population of northern Colorado is booming, and we're not just talking about people here.

The number of dairy cows is now higher than ever.

At the northern edge of the state, Weld and Larimer counties are already home to high numbers of beef and dairy cattle, buttressed by the region's numerous feedlots, which send the animals to several nearby slaughterhouses. But an expansion of a cheese factory owned by dairy giant Leprino Foods will require even more cows.

Americans throw away about a third of our available food.

But what some see as trash, others are seeing as a business opportunity. A new facility known as the Heartland Biogas Project is taking wasted food from Colorado's most populous areas and turning it into electricity. Through a technology known as anaerobic digestion, spoiled milk, old pet food and vats of grease combine with helpful bacteria in massive tanks to generate gas.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's the time of the year when Katie Abrams sees her Fort Collins, Colo., neighbors pulling up with real trees tied to car roofs. She feels small pangs of jealousy when friends post woodsy pictures in flannel shirts, cutting down the perfect spruce.

Close to 60,000 jobs are set to open up in agriculture, food and natural resource sectors each year for the next five years, according to a report from Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The marijuana industry has a pesticide problem. Many commercial cannabis growers use chemicals to control bugs and mold. But the plant's legal status is unresolved.

The grow room at Medical MJ Supply in Fort Collins, Colo., has all the trappings of a modern marijuana cultivation facility: glowing yellow lights, plastic irrigation tubes, and rows of knee-high cannabis plants.

"We're seeing a crop that's probably in it third or fourth week," says Nick Dice, the owner.

Humans have been growing hemp for centuries. Hemp-based foods have taken off recently. So have lotions and soaps that use hemp oil. There’s evidence that different compounds in cannabis could be used as medicine and hope that its chemical compounds could hold keys to treatments for Parkinson’s disease and childhood epilepsy.

The average American farmer is a white man in his late 50s. Or at least, that's who's in charge of the farm, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the number of female-run farms has tripled since the 1970s, to nearly 14 percent in 2012. And if you dig a little deeper, you'll find women are showing up in new roles. But because of the way farm businesses are structured, women's work often isn't included in those USDA counts.

Ben Hamilton walks down the salad dressing aisle at his neighborhood grocery store in west Denver. The human resources consultant usually seeks out organic options and scans nutrition information.

"I am a label reader. I think a lot of people read labels and really are curious to know what is in our food supply," he says. But Hamilton says he wants more information, specifically whether the food he buys includes ingredients derived from genetically modified crops, or GMOs.

Lunch time at Harris Bilingual Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., displays all the usual trappings of a public school cafeteria: Star Wars lunch boxes, light up tennis shoes, hard plastic trays and chocolate milk cartons with little cartoon cows. It’s pizza day, the most popular of the week, and kids line up at a salad bar before receiving their slice.

Local food is no longer just a novelty. Farmers markets are growing nationwide and farms that sell directly to consumers brought in $1.3 billion in 2012, up eight percent from just five years earlier. Despite the demand, making local food work in some places is decidedly more difficult than others. Steamboat Springs, Colo., is one of those places.

Problem number one is infrastructure.

Harvest Public Media/Luke Runyon

When the wind picked up from the south on John Schweiser’s farm outside Rocky Ford, Colo., the sky would go black. A charging wall of dust would force the 80-year-old farmer and his wife to hunker down in their ranch-style farmhouse.

“You’d look up and here’d come this big ol’ rolling dirt,” Schweiser said. “You couldn’t see how high it was.”

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use earlier this year, it also opened the door for food products infused with the psychoactive ingredient, THC, to anyone over the age of 21. That means bakers and food companies now have to ensure new products aren't contaminated with foodborne pathogens. And they have to make sure they're not falling into the hands of children or are too potent to eat.

Editor's note: This story contains language that may be offensive to some readers.

Life as a gay man in the U.S. has changed in the past decade — the law and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality have shifted. And those greater social and legal freedoms have also changed how some gay men choose to express their masculinity — and their femininity.

The most recent farm bill is allowing a handful of farmers across the country to put hemp, the nonpsychoactive cousin of marijuana, in the ground.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

The blue corduroy jacket worn by high school students in FFA, formerly the Future Farmers of America, is an icon of rural life. To the average city dweller the jacket is a vestige of dwindling, isolated farm culture, as fewer and fewer young people grow up on farms. The numbers tell a different story however. In spite of that demographic shift, a record number of kids are donning blue jackets this year.

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