Young Person Painting Side of Barn
Volunteers help paint a walking path, one form of sustainable transportation, as part of an effort to raise awareness about the climate crisis through art.

Art in Agricultural Communities

Building a California Climate Art Trail

Quick Summary

  • UC Davis Institute of the Environment is helping spread awareness of the climate crisis through art. You can help us expand a climate art trail growing throughout California's Central Valley. Email Jullianne Ballou at to learn more.

During the last decade, artists have increasingly turned toward addressing social and ecological issues linked to the climate crisis, including food access, melting glaciers, and deforestation. This work, often immediate and bold, packs an emotional punch that’s difficult to ignore – documenting a pressing reality and inspiring action. Environmental writer Bill McKibben has said future generations will look to the art we’re producing to understand what rising temperatures meant for our populations. 

Central Valley Artists Push for Climate Action

If you’re driving north on County Road 102 – Pole Line Road in Davis – you’ll see a series of signs abutting an almond orchard to your right with the messages: “Orchards capture carbon,” “What a climate bargain,” and “Race to net zero.” I saw the signs for the first time while I was driving home from work one afternoon prior to joining the Institute of the Environment last month as Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives. At the time, I was renting a farmhouse on the land that featured the signs — 80+ acres mostly planted with almond trees interspersed with cover crops: oats, bell beans, peas, canola, and mustard. The property owner (and my landlord), Mike Russell, had only told me that he was engaged in a project with UC Davis, and that an environmental design class would make occasional site visits to plan for a mural they were designing for the side of his nearby barn.

The idea for the mural began when Russell and his friend Steve Shaffer, both veterans of the Yolo County agricultural community, started wondering how to motivate more local farmers to integrate climate mitigation and adaptation practices into their agriculture. They remembered how the image of Rosie the Riveter inspired women to participate in World War II and realized art could serve as a powerful vessel for messaging; and moreover, could be collaboratively produced. 

They also had a big canvas to offer: the side of Russell’s barn. The men were introduced to UC Davis environmental design professor Emily Schlickman, who developed the concept of the mural in a one-credit course she designed and taught on art and climate change activism. The class launched a mural competition, and the winning design by engineering student Rachael Dal Porto was selected to grace the side of Russell’s barn facing one of the more heavily trafficked roads in the county. Dal Porto’s illustration is agriculture-centric, and also features urban elements that benefit both humans and the environment, including an e-bus, food cooperative, and cooling center. 

I watched students and their professor survey the site, and I got to know Sacramento muralist Leon Willis during one of his frequent visits to the farm to trace the mural design. I came to learn more about the project on the community mural paint day, an event with music, food, and informational booths staffed by experts from UC Davis’s Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety and the Center for Watershed Sciences, both part of the UC Davis Institute of the Environment. More than 250 people, ranging in age from three years old to 80, had convened at the farm to help paint the mural, which depicted a version of the Sacramento Valley bolstered by climate-resilient crops, wildlife, floodplains, and restored wetlands. The mural’s message is clear: with the right planning and design, built communities and agricultural lands in California’s bread basket can offer nurturing support to human and wild ecologies.

A group of people gather near a barn, painting a mural on its side.
Community members gather in Davis to paint a mural of the Sacramento Valley to help raise awareness about the climate crisis.


In California’s rural communities, climate change impacts the lives and livelihoods of farmers, farmworkers and their families through heat waves, drought, fire, flood, pests, and disease. Farms produce 11 percent of the greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change, and they can also offer climate solutions when they promote practices like carbon sequestration, water stewardship, farmland conservation, renewable energy use, and climate equity. While the benefits of ethical land stewardship are multiple and lasting, they aren’t always visible or apparent, but public art can help.

Can Art Spur a Revolution in Agriculture?

Today, the UC Davis Institute of the Environment is working with the campus and community partners to carry this initiative forward. We’re partnering with students, youth groups, educators, farmers and agricultural organizations to create a series of murals spread throughout California that will show how climate change affects agricultural communities and how these communities are combating the climate crisis. 

Murals will be created on the sides of barns and in community parks and gardens. They will be objects of beauty in landscapes where public art is scarce or nonexistent. The next mural, an effort led by Heather Lieb, a Ph.D student in the Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry Department, and her advisor Professor Ian Faloona, in partnership with the women farmworkers association Lideres Campesinas, will allow local youth to show their perceptions of the degraded Salton Sea and what could be possible through ecological reformation. Because the region of study is home to many Latino families and Mexican immigrants, the inspiration for the mural will be the murals of Diego Rivera during the Mexican Revolution.

“Our mural will embrace stylistic elements similar to Rivera's Post-Impressionism, which uses vivid and unusual colors, thick applications of paint, and real-life subject matter, capturing changing qualities and the passage of time based on distinctive brushstrokes and lighting effects,” Lieb said.

Climate change will be this generation's biggest challenge and inspiring youth through activism and art will create momentum as they move into the workforce, Lieb added.

“We are in the midst of a climate revolution, one where we are fighting to combat the changes associated with anthropogenic modifications to the land and their impact on the environment and low-income agricultural communities. The best way to win this revolution is through consciousness and unity. Therefore, the youth will take the lead on this mural project.”

The lifeblood of this initiative will be the agricultural communities who help design, paint, and host the murals. If you're interested in supporting this initiative, please click here. If you’re interested in getting involved, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Jullianne Ballou at