Luke Runyon

I report on the Colorado River basin and water issues affecting the Western U.S. for KUNC.

I came to KUNC in March 2013, after spending about two years as a reporter with Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colorado. Until September 2017, I was the Colorado reporter for Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food issues in the Midwest and Great Plains. 

My reports are frequently featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here & Now and APM's Marketplace.

Before moving to Colorado I spent a year covering local and state government for Illinois Public Radio in the state's capital. I have a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

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.

Water is an in-demand commodity in Del Norte, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.

The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.

“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler in the valley, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager at Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”

In June, online retail giant Amazon announced its intent to buy Whole Foods Market for nearly $14 billion.
Marco Verch / Creative Commons

The online retail giant Amazon announced a deal in June that showed its latest ambition: to completely change how America gets its food.

The latest step toward that goal is a proposed merger with Whole Foods Market, worth nearly $14 billion. The deal recently passed a key hurdle after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided the sale  would not hamper competition or provide an unfair advantage.

FILE: STEPHANIE PAIGE OGBURN FOR HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

It has been a rough few months for the world’s largest meat company.

Known for its rapid expansion across the globe, Brazil-based meatpacking giant JBS has been embroiled in scandal for much of 2017. The company is so large it is difficult to avoid for those who eat meat. As of 2014, JBS’s U.S. subsidiary held a 22 percent market-share in U.S. beef processing and an 18 percent market-share in poultry processing.

The small town of Haxton on Colorado's eastern plains has seen a declining population.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand if he is to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

The Agriculture Department established climate research centers in 2014 to translate science into real-world ideas for farmers and ranchers adapting to a hotter climate.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Farmers and ranchers, with their livelihoods intimately tied to weather and the environment, may not be able to depend on research conducted by the government to help them adapt to climate change if the Trump Administration follows through on campaign promises to shift federal resources away from studying the climate.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the long delays in seating his replacement leaves rural America without a voice in the Trump administration.

Vilsack, a Democrat who served as USDA chief during both terms of the Obama Administration, cites President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal as an example of what happens without a Cabinet position dedicated to rural issues.

Student Gabriela Cardenas, left, asks a question of citizenship class instructor Marissa Velazquez at the Brush, Colo., public library.
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.

At the public library in the rural Morgan County town of Brush, Colorado, Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and today marks the halfway point in Velazquez’s class, a ten-week crash course on American history, civics and English.

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Farm and rural advocacy groups say cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would harm rural communities, at a time when many of them need an infusion of cash.

In what’s being called a “skinny budget” because it sets an outline and contains scant details, Trump’s proposal calls for a 21 percent reduction in the USDA’s annual discretionary spending, and lays out rationales for why some programs are either eliminated or scaled back, calling some “duplicative,” or “underperforming.”

What is left of the home of O.T. Jackson, the founder of Dearfield, Colorado, sits on the town site in rural Weld County.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Blink while driving on Highway 34 east of Greeley, Colorado, and you might miss the former Great Plains town of Dearfield.

Abandoned towns from the early 20th century are far from unique on this stretch of plains. Withered storefronts and collapsed false-front homes are common. Boom and bust economics and harsh weather made it tough for turn of the century settlers to succeed long-term.

Isra Mohamud, 18, is a member of Fort Morgan Colorado's small East African community.
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.

The bell signals the start of second period. A trio of young women take seats in English class, their attention quickly drifting outside the walls of the high school in Fort Morgan, Colorado, eager to talk about what they’re working toward.

“I want to become an FBI [agent],” says freshman Mariam Mohammed. “It’s my dream.”

A worker tends to the cows at a dairy farm outside Wellington, Colorado.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

After hundreds of arrests of undocumented immigrants by immigration police, the Trump administration’s increased focus on immigration enforcement has some of the country’s largest farm groups worried.

At this Natural Grocers store in Lakewood, Colorado, the non-dairy milk section is larger than the actual dairy milk section.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

A war is brewing over what you pour on your breakfast cereal.

Dairy farmers say the makers of plant-based milks – like almond milk, soy milk and a long list of other varieties – are stealing away their customers and deceiving consumers. And they’d like the federal government to back them up.

At its heart, the fight boils down to the definition and use of one simple word: milk.

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.

Tens of thousands of black soldier fly larvae munch on juice pulp at Mad Agriculture's pilot facility in Boulder County, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

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.

Ben and Leticia Ward have built their Colorado farm using decommissioned military gear and found materials.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Ben and Leticia Ward’s farm in Fountain, Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs, doesn’t look like an army base. But it’s not hard to uncover whiffs of military influence at Little Roman Farm.

A stack of sturdy fiberglass bins next to a greenhouse seem benign, ready to be put to use as brooding bins for chickens or an aquaponics system to grow veggies and fish at the same time. The bins once housed Joint Direct Attack Munition, or part of a system that controls “smart bombs.”

A handler and a hog compete for the blue ribbon at the 2013 Colorado State Fair.
file: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Showing livestock at the county fair can be a great source of pride for a youngster in farm country. It can also be a source of a novel flu virus capable of starting a pandemic.

According to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 people – 16 of them children – tested positive for strains of influenza never before seen in humans after attending agricultural fairs in Ohio and Michigan in August of this year.

Some of the world's largest agribusiness companies announced plans to combine, if regulators sign on.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The massive industry that supplies farmers with the tools to raise crops is on the brink of a watershed moment. High-profile deals that would see some of the largest global agri-chemical companies combine are in the works and could have ripple effects from farm fields to dinner tables across the globe.

Protestors object to the presence of genetically modified organisms in food at a rally in Denver, Colo.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Five of the six biggest companies that produce and sell seeds and chemicals to the world’s farmers are pursuing deals that could leave a market dominated by just three giant, global companies. They say getting bigger means bringing more sophisticated and innovative solutions to farmers faster, but opponents say consolidation has irreversible downsides.

Skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried animal testicles served as Rocky Mountain Oysters at Bruce's Bar in Severance, Colorado.
Ann Marie Awad / for Harvest Public Media

A guy who covers agriculture in the West who’s never put a skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried bull testicle into a cup of cocktail sauce and then into his mouth? I couldn’t let it stand.

They’re known by many names: lamb fries, bull fries, Montana tenders, huevos de toro, cowboy caviar. In my corner of Colorado, they’re Rocky Mountain oysters and I somehow coaxed myself into thinking I needed to try them to be more a part of the place I live, to be a true blue Coloradan.

The headwaters of the South Platte River emerge near Bailey, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

Kathey Lee, owner of jam company Modern Gingham, fills jars at her shared kitchen in Denver.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

The hardest part of starting a new food business should be in perfecting the secret recipe. For many entrepreneurial cooks though, the tough times come when searching for a space to legally make and sell their food.

Commercial kitchen space, with stainless steel counters, industrial appliances meeting food safety regulations and appropriately-sized sinks, can be hard to come by and expensive to build. One tech startup is trying to fix that, using the same sharing economy concepts as travel titans Uber and Airbnb.

Auctioneer Spanky Assiter calls bids for land and water rights at a real estate auction in Loveland, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Few things are more valuable to a farmer in the arid West than irrigation water. Without it, the land turns back into its natural state: dry, dusty plains. If a fast-growing city is your neighbor, then your water holds even more value.

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.

Pretty Chickens

Jul 26, 2016
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

With more and more livestock being house in urban and suburban backyards, some owners take just as much pride in their poultry, as their dog or cat. So much so, that they're primping and preening them for beauty contests. Harvest Public Media's Luke Runyon takes us on a trip to one such contest in Colorado.

Scientists at the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Insectary raise insects adapted to attacking bugs and plants harmful to agriculture.
Dan Garrison / for Harvest Public Media

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is killing pests dead, without the aid of chemicals.

Halfway down a dead-end road in the small farming town of Palisade, Colorado, is the research facility known as “The Insectary.”  Scientists at the lab develop “biocontrol insects,” insects adapted to attacking bugs and plants harmful to agriculture. Colorado’s Insectary is the oldest and largest facility of its kind in the United States.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Chickens aren't a traditional pet. 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 their dog or cat. So much so that they're primping and preening them for beauty contests.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Massive bison herds used to be a staple of the Great Plains. That is until we almost hunted them out of existence.

Now, with a new designation as the United States’ national mammal, bison ranchers argue that to conserve the species we have to eat them.

It’s an idea called “market-based conservation,” and it contends that humans are no good at saving species out of the goodness of our hearts, or motivated by some driving force of environmental justice.

Greata Horner holds a photo of her and her husband Ed taken a few months before he died.
Dan Boyce / Rocky Mountain PBS for Harvest Public Media

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.

The couple was down to one car. The other one was in the shop. She donned the costume for a play, set in Old Jerusalem, later that morning, part of Vacation Bible School at the church. She just needed the car to get there. 

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.

Pages