TAKING advantage of a brief pause in the summer rain I walk through the Milton Abbas valley and end up at the local Farm Shop. They sell coffee now and I sit under the trees to drink one, ending up as usual with a cat on my knee.

Steve, the owner of Steeptonbill Farm Shop, set above the beautiful Dorset village of Milton Abbas - an area rich with history and natural beauty, has a little shop which stocks a range of local produce and during Covid this place was an essential hub of the community, providing critical supplies and a touch of reassuring normality in challenging times. It thrived then.

Normally upbeat and energetic, today Steve is more thoughtful and serious. I pick up two beautiful lemons and ask how much they are. 49 pence each. I know I can get lemons for less at Tescos but these ones are much bigger and particularly beautiful. I hold them as I ask how things are going.

Steve’s day starts early at around 5.30, with relentless chores of planting, harvesting and tending to animals. He then minds the farm shop and his evening is spent back out in the fields. It is a life he loves but growing concerns of economic viability has robbed him of its previous joy. Steve, whose shop not long ago won an award for its quality and service, has gone from 600 visitors a day to 6, if he is lucky.

We stare thoughtfully at the arrangement of vegetables in boxes around us. There is less on display than perhaps there once was but nevertheless it all looks great, and is sourced from local suppliers albeit at a slightly higher price than one might expect to pay in town. But these are real prices, fair and without exploitation. It is just that we, the general public, aren’t used to paying so much and feel entitled to a bargain.

As we ponder more on the situation I hear a story of a carrot farmer who, when dealing with a well known supermarket chain, was offered considerably less for his crop than it took him to grow. When he refused to sell, at 7 pence a kilo, the buyer laughed derisively and said “Well what are you going to do with it all then?” The result of this disrespect was that the farmer fed his crop all to local animals rather than be treated with such disdain.

The irony is that prices at supermarkets will go up because cutthroat methods of doing business, such as described above, will ultimately result in scarcity. You only have to look at the egg industry to see how that has, and will play out more often. I think potato prices are going up next for the same reasons.

Instead of boasting that their prices are the lowest, supermarkets would do better in the moral stakes by demonstrating instead that they pay their farmers fairly. Removing corporate greed from the equation is the only way to allow for fairness and morality to shape the business structure, but without the necessary legislation it will never happen.

Meanwhile, Steve tells me of a farmer he knew well, who was sinking further into despair over the situation and struggling to see a future for himself. He ultimately took his own life, leaving long lasting personal devastation for his family and friends. We both acknowledged that it was likely that other such tragedies could easily play out in the current economic climate and are the direct impact of turning a blind eye to the consequences of corporate greed and their cruel penalties which are passed all the way down the chain to the bottom.

When Steve tells me that he wonders if he will be able to afford to keep the freezers and the lights on past Christmas, I feel like shaking the local community by the shoulders and shouting “Wake up!”

Memories are clearly short over how this wonderful little place supported so many at a time when it was needed. Now the situation is reversed and this outlet, along with all the other smaller independent traders, deserve and need our support.

Perhaps this message may not seem so relevant for those who are struggling to put food on the table for their families. It is clear that this economic crisis has hit many people hard. It isn’t just the farmers and small businesses who have been severely squeezed in order to sustain the bigger corporations.

This race to the top position in the marketplace, to constantly seek new ways for the growth and increase of profit margins is unsustainable and probably immoral and crazy. The exceptional bonuses still being paid to the CEOs at the top are particularly unpalatable when compared with the suffering that was caused in order to produce them.

Where is the responsibility for the morality of this if not with each individual within the process? A true sense of community is the only thing that will sustain us, especially in this time where divisiveness seems to be being encouraged. Everyone can help with this. Just do something rather than nothing. After all, as one wise philosopher said: “The smallest thing in its rightful place can lead to the highest goals.”

I buy the lemons.

Annabelle Narey

Milton Abbas