By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BOISE – Parma High School art teacher Linda McMillin recently put the finishing touches on a 35-foot long agricultural mural she painted on a wall in an underground tunnel beneath the Idaho State Capitol building.
The tunnel, which connects the Capitol to nearby government buildings, is used by hundreds of legislators and state employees.
The mural will serve as a reminder to them of the important role agriculture continues to play in Idaho, said Rick Waitley, state director of Idaho Ag in the Classroom, which commissioned the project.
“The location of this mural in this climate and condition will allow it to last for several decades,” he said. “We are excited to have visitors and employees through the tunnel have their walk enlightened by a view of Idaho agriculture and the abundance of great agriculture products produced in this state.”
Waitley said plans are to have a mural dedication and public open house next Feb. 27, in conjunction with the annual Larry Branen Idaho Ag Summit. Details of the open house will be available after the beginning of 2020.
The large mural features the word AGRICULTURE and each of the large letters contains a different farm commodity produced in Idaho. The word AGRICULTURE appears to be planted in a farm field and the Sawtooth Mountains are in the background.
McMillin, who started painting the mural in January and completed it in mid-April, has painted a lot of different murals in her lifetime but said this project was special.
She spent countless hours working on it, over weekends and after school hours, and told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation shortly before adding the finishing touches that she poured her heart into it.
“This is the best work that I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’m trying to show the beauty of all the different agriculture that is here in Idaho. I’m trying to present it in its best form.”
The first letter of the mural, A, contains Russet potatoes, Idaho’s most famous product.
“I was given free reign so of course I started with potatoes,” McMillin said.
The letter G contains wheat fields and the R contains dairy cattle. Onions are depicted in the I, trout in the C and beef cattle in the U.
There are sugar beets in the L, apples in the T, alfalfa hay with leafcutter bees in the U, honey bees in the R and sheep are depicted in the E.
The crops and livestock featured in the mural are just a small sampling of the 186 farm commodities that are produced in Idaho, Waitley said.
“I knew we might take some criticism for not including one commodity over another but in the end, we are just about Idaho ag in general,” he said.
Waitley recently viewed the finished product, along with some other project supporters.
“We are very pleased with it,” he said. “Everything depicted is clear, easily identifiable and appealing.”
Waitley said project supporters gave McMillin a basic idea of what they wanted but left the details up to her. They did make some suggestions as they saw the project develop, including adding hay bales with the alfalfa “because we thought some people might not know what alfalfa was, but would recognize it tied to a hay bale.”
They also suggested adding sheep in honor of Idaho’s current governor, Brad Little, a sheep rancher.
Although Idaho Ag in the Classroom coordinated the project, several ag-related groups and businesses helped support it financially, including Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
“We want to remind people that agriculture continues to drive the state’s economy and it’s important that lawmakers and others understand this,” said IFBF President Bryan Searle, a Shelley farmer. “We appreciate that the mural highlights the incredible diversity of agricultural commodities that are produced in Idaho.”
Brad Griff, executive director of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association, which also helped sponsor the mural, said his organization believes strongly in reminding people of agriculture’s importance in the state.
“We wanted to show our support of Idaho agriculture and remind legislators and other decision-makers that ag is still the No. 1 sector of our economy and the backbone of Idaho,” he said.
The names of the sponsors are painted next to the mural.
When Waitley asked people involved with the agricultural industry to submit names of possible artists, he received 17 names.
“Then I started getting pitches from the actual artists and some samples,” he said. “However, over and over I heard the name Linda McMillin at Parma High School.”
He and a few other people involved in the project “went to the school, which is full of Linda’s murals, and we liked what we saw,” Waitley said.
He also drove around Parma and viewed some of the other farming-themed murals McMillin has painted on the sides of agricultural buildings, “which inspired me that she knew how to draw agriculture. Some people do and others do not.”
McMillin grew up on a farm in Illinois and is surrounded by agriculture in Parma, where a wide variety of crops are grown. But she said she has learned a lot about farming and ranching through her work on the mural.
“This has been a real education for me,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about agriculture while doing this.”
For example, “I learned the alfalfa farmers have to purchase the leafcutter bees and that’s how the hay gets pollinated,” she said. “I learned a lot about hay as I was doing that letter.”
She also received some help from experts in the industry, such as Jon Watson, who owns an onion shipping company based in Parma.
McMillin had trouble with the lines on her onions and some looked more like pumpkins so Watson came down to the tunnel and showed her how to draw them so they looked like onions.
The tunnel contains some other wall paintings that were done decades ago and most of them have badly faded with time.
In a Jan. 22 letter to legislative leaders describing the project, Waitley said he believed the mural would “set a new standard for art in the tunnel area.”
Waitley received the go-ahead for the $8,000 project from Idaho Department of Administration Director Bob Geddes and now other natural resource-themed murals could be forthcoming.
“We are now talking to other natural resource providers – forestry, water, soil, mines, etc. – suggesting that they join with us (on) murals and Linda is standing ready and available,” he said.