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September 23, 2009

Community farms enrich lives

There are a small number of community farms operating across Scotland – both in urban and rural settings and often in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. One such farm – Knowetop Community Farm in Dumbarton – is facing a cash crisis and possible closure. The campaign to save the farm has been buoyed by Scotland’s greatest living writer, Alasdair Gray, weighing in to lend support

Ed McCracken, Sunday Herald

A community farm in one of the most deprived and neglected corners of Scotland has found an unlikely champion in the form of Scotland’s greatest living writer, Alasdair Gray.

More famous for writing modern classics, creating beautiful dreamlike illustrations and campaigning for the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland, Gray has now chosen to battle on behalf of the goats, sheep, pot-bellied pigs and Shetland ponies – not to mention the employees and volunteers – of Knowetop Community Farm in Dumbarton.

Income from the National Lottery and other revenue streams have dried up this year, leaving the farm with only enough cash to continue until Christmas.

Gray’s wife, Morag, drew his attention to Knowetop’s plight. The farm is in the town’s poverty-stricken Castlehill housing estate, where she grew up.

The Lanark author said his wife was almost in tears when she initially heard the news. “She felt very strongly that it is a good thing and asked if I could do anything to help,” he said.

After visiting the farm last month, he has pledged a monthly donation and is also helping to raise awareness.

Gray said he believes that “a community farm is one way of reducing crime. It is where people, young people, are given the opportunity to enjoy open air activities and work with animals and agriculture.”

Knowetop Farm sits on a 16-acre plot of land in the middle of an estate that is third in the Scottish index of deprivation. The market garden, bursting with vegetables to be sold in the farm shop, shares a fence with the housing estate.

Seven people are employed on the farm, three full-time, as well as a group of volunteers. Since it opened in the 1980s, many people have come to work on the farm as a form of therapy in dealing with mental and physical disabilities. It attracts 30,000 visitors a year.

The farm’s board said it needs to expand to survive. The youth club is “bursting at the seams” and it wants to turn some of the land into allotments producing organic food for local cafés and restaurants. But the credit crunch and lottery money being diverted means these dreams are on hold.

Rosemary Harvie, mother of Green MSP Patrick Harvie, volunteers five days a week to work in the garden and is a member of the board. She is adamant that if the farm closes it would be a significant loss to the area.

“It brings tremendous benefit to the community,” she said. “We live in probably one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. Parents are trying really hard to keep their kids off the street. A lot of what we do, and would like to expand, is to decrease anti-social behaviour, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse; encouraging people to get involved in healthy living, learning about horticulture, agriculture and animal care.”

She described Gray’s involvement as “absolutely amazing”.

“Everyone was astonished when he showed up at one of our meetings,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it … it is amazing to think he would support us.”

Donations have been coming in steadily since Knowetop’s situation was made public last month, but a major, stable cash injection is still needed.

“I pray to God that Knowetop Community Farm will go on enriching the quality of Dumbarton people’s lives,” said Gray. “May it become an example of work by local people for each other, an example of which they are proud.”