From Fine Art to Fine Food


by Daphne Bishop

What began as one woman’s New Year’s resolution to feed her family locally and expand her design business has quickly grown into a multi-dimensional project that may well be replicated nationally.

“Will Work for Food,” the new marketing campaign of Gates Studio, located in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is one solution to economic hard times that utilizes bartering and reduced fee services for a group that rarely has time or money for marketing: small farms. It may also offer opportunities to inner city youths to promote the farms by creating “Will Work for Food” T-shirts, aprons and other items. 

Valerie Gates is the catalyst and self-described local food neophyte who had “never eaten or cooked a turnip,” let alone connected with small farms in nearby Natick or Hardwick. She was moved to action last Christmas after reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which contrasts the way most of the country’s food is produced on industrial farms, with small-scale, sustainable farming. She also read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” by Barbara Kingsolver, in which the author and her family strive to eat only locally-produced foods for a year. 

At the same time, Gates Studio experienced a drop in business due to the country’s economic woes, and she was re-evaluating priorities. Valerie thought about the kind of clients she wanted to work with. She also thought about the health and education of her children, ages eight and thirteen. The books made “a big impression on me as a mother,” says Valerie, who decided to offer the marketing and design services of her firm to five farms in exchange for the foods they produced.

With the help of the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership, a non-profit that supports buy-local initiatives, the “Will Work for Food” offer was mentioned “in a tiny blurb” in the partnership’s early February newsletter.  Within a few days, Valerie received calls from farmers all over her homestate of Massachusetts and from Rhode Island.

Now, she is fielding inquiries from Maine and beyond, and has offered the campaign nationally to small farms and food producers on a limited basis. She is also talking to groups that work with urban youth to create T-shirts and aprons with the “Will Work for Food” logo which is laudable as a rural urban partnering opportunity and something that benefits both communities.

One immediate obstacle was that bartering is taxed as a cash transaction, meaning both the farmers and Valerie are taxed on the food-for-services partnership.  That is one reason she decided to offer her company’s services to five farms at 75 percent off her standard rates, create a third tier that offers services at 50 percent off, and a final tier that offers services at 25 percent off.  She hopes to eventually apply for grants and continue the project on a pro bono basis by either creating or partnering with a non-profit.

Valerie and her husband and business partner Barry Friedman continue to work with other clients as “Will Work for Food” develops.  The work in progress is documented on Gates Studio’s web site and includes both the art created and descriptions of the local foods Valerie and her family are learning to prepare.  She’s quick to note that,  “My husband is the cook in our house, and he’s developed several good recipes.”        

There is no question in Valerie’s mind that this project “is the right idea at the right time,” and might not have generated as much attention in a financially stable era.  She hopes to inspire Americans who are weary of food safety scares and the documented abuse of animals on industrial farms to demand more locally grown foods, and to connect with the people who produce them.

“I also want to help make farming hip, to brand farming as a hip thing,” Valerie says with enthusiasm.  For the mother of two, who grew up on Cape Cod and lived and worked in Los Angeles before returning to Massachusetts, this marketing campaign is about young people dedicating themselves to the hard work of sustainable farming.  It is about children connecting with animals and the nuts and bolts of growing food, and about a reciprocal relationship between people and their environment that has been all but lost.

At a time when the economy is tighter by the day, and so many unemployed or struggling to hold onto homes or family farms, she encourages people to recognize the skills they have, offer them, and create their own solutions to seemingly intractable problems.  Valerie says it epitomizes the philosophy, “Give and it always comes back. Pay it forward. It will expand your world as it has ours.”

Guest blogger, Daphne Bishop has worked as a reporter and in public relations.  She owned an organic coffee company for ten years that provided job training for homeless individuals. She lives in rural Ashfield, Massachusetts and will be following the progress of the Will Work for Food project here on The Back Forty throughout the growing season.


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6 Responses to “From Fine Art to Fine Food”

  1. This is an interesting idea. 

    And it may be newly resurgent but it isn’t new.  Bartering is an old tradition widely (and wisely) used by farmers and merchants before credit cards and bank loans and even before governments came up with money.  Bartering goods and services was accepted as currency.  Many cash-strapped small business people are rediscovering the benefits of bartering.

    I’ve read about barter “clubs”, online barter associations and barter exchanges where I might need a will but the lawyer doesn’t need piano lessons.  However, the barber has a talented daughter and offers free haircuts which the lawyer does want and so in a barter exchange I can give those piano lessons and rack up enough points to get my legal work done.

    Kudos to Valerie Gates for taking an old idea and making it new for her and her family.  You can read about barter exchanges here in a  New York Times report.

  2. Great idea. Why not go back to the old system of bartering – the most honest way of exchanging ‘energy’. The article gives us hope in our own creativity and resourcefulness. Well done, Daphne Bishop.

  3. Great article and concept.

  4. I really like the idea of making farming a hip thing to do. LOL

  5. […] we first met Valerie Gates a few months ago, she’d just started Will work for Food, which offered her design services […]

  6. […] who grow it, and cook it up in delicious recipes.  And it’s an offshoot of Will Work for Food, the project started by our energetic friend, Valerie Gates. She’s been offering barter and reduced rate […]

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