Some good news for British farming, but more to do, particularly on a farm support roll-out that remains “a million miles” away from government commitments – that was the verdict following a series of Defra announcements timed to coincide with the NFU’s Back British Farming Day.
Defra Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey and Farming Minister Mark Spencer unveiled a number of new measures in areas the NFU has long campaigned on.
Positive news for British farmers included support for a “buy British button” in online supermarket shopping, a new grant scheme for rooftop solar panel installation, confirmation that farmers enrolling in new environmental support schemes will be able to use them to meet public procurement standards and a new £4m fund to help upgrade existing small abattoirs to improve animal welfare, business efficiency and productivity.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “We have heard a number of welcome announcements this week, and credit where it’s due, farmers will be pleased government has listened to them, but the backdrop to these pieces of good news is that many farmers continue to face a bleak end to the year, with money they were promised, and rely on, not coming.
“While we have been working hard to prepare for changes to the essential support schemes that support farming and environmental management, delays in the roll-out of the new scheme, coupled with reductions in the current scheme, mean most farmers have been unable to access the new SFI while facing significant holes in their finances from the withdrawal of BPS.”
“What we have today, after years in the making, is still a million miles away.”
NFU President Minette Batters
First SFI payments made before the end of the year
Chief among the announcements made, ministers also pledged that farmers who have a ‘live’ SFI (Sustainable Farming Incentive) agreement before the end of the year will receive an advance payment of 25% of their money in ‘the first month of their agreement’.
This, the government said, would help with cashflow against a background of high inflation and rising input costs.
News of the cash injection comes after heavily criticised delays to the flagship farm support scheme and slippage of the full opening date from August to 18 September, which had made it unlikely farmers would see money this year.
Combined with £720 million of cuts to direct support so far, that had prompted the NFU to warn of a black hole in farm finances. It had called on government to “do the right thing” and postpone the timeline of cuts to BPS.
At the time of writing, it is unclear how many farmers will be able to benefit from an advance, with only a relatively small number of farmers expected to be able to proceed on the 18 September date, before a wider roll-out.
Minette added: “Today’s announcement will mean those farmers that are able to apply for SFI in October are being promised a percentage of their first payments before the end of the year.
“While this announcement will provide welcome progress it doesn’t go far enough to deliver on the promises made countless times that the replacement to BPS would be open to all, less bureaucratic, offer a profitable and seamless transition from old to the new. What we have today, after years in the making, is still a million miles away.
“Under the current plans the SFI is open to the few and not the majority. The lack of budget transparency in Defra makes it almost impossible to know where the BPS money, initially earmarked for SFI in 2023-24, has gone.
“In the short-term, we need the government to bridge the gap it has created in taking away one set of payments before delivering access to their replacements by ensuring farm support payments made in December are not capped as currently planned.”