Delay to SFI launch ‘totally unacceptable’

Environment and climate
NFU vice president David Exwood stood in front of a field of grass

Defra has announced that the launch of SFI won't be until mid-September following assurances that the scheme would be ready for August 2023.

Farmers can now express their interest in SFI (Sustainable Farming Incentive) 2023 and will be able to apply from 18 September, it has been announced, with the slippage from an expected August roll-out meaning that the earliest adopters will not see money land in their accounts until January 2024.

The NFU said the “unacceptable” delay fell short of one of the key tests for the scheme’s delivery.

The later-than-expected timeline comes following problems for those applying for the Countryside Stewardship scheme’s Mid Tier, with applicants seeing the deadline there pushed back by four weeks owing to application delays and IT glitches.

Farmers left in limbo

NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “This timeline is much later than farmers were led to expect and, as a result, most will not receive any SFI payments this year, one of the key tests for delivery of the scheme.

“Against a backdrop of farming businesses continuing to face huge economic challenges, facing into at least a 50% reduction in the current direct payments in 2023, and continued high farm input inflation, this failure to deliver SFI and Countryside Stewardship reliably is totally unacceptable.

“With the scale of the roll out of SFI 23 still unclear and with many farmers still not sure what they need to do to apply, the current situation needs to be resolved quickly.

For the sake of British food and farming, Defra has to get the SFI policy right, and soon.

NFU Vice President David Exwood

“It is absolutely vital that Defra provides complete transparency of how the agricultural budget is being spent. Farmers are the custodians of our countryside, they provide the raw ingredients for our country’s food and drink sector, worth some £100bn, and yet the policies that should support this vital sector are fundamentally missing.”

Defra has opened a pre-registration window from 30 August to help smooth the application process. It said this would ensure farmers had all necessary information in place ahead of an application.

It added that the 18 September date for SFI23 would “provide certainty”. 

What’s in the scheme?

Farmers will be able to apply for 23 paid actions – 19 of them new – under a 2023 SFI that the department says has benefited from “extensive feedback”.

New actions include payments for hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips and low-input grassland.

Three SFI actions will be carried forwards from 2022 but ‘unbundled’, allowing them to be combined with the others in a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach. Farmers will also be able to take up SFI and Countryside Stewardship options at the same time, as long as the actions are compatible, and they are not being paid for the same action twice.

The NFU said the offer appeared to be “broader and more flexible – something we have been asking for”.

David added: “For the sake of British food and farming, to ensure farmers and growers can plan for a sustainable future, where we continue to lead the way with climate friendly food produced to world-leading standards of animal welfare and environmental protection, Defra has to get the SFI policy right, and soon.”

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Our general election manifesto – Farming for Britain's Future – outlines our key asks of the next government to ensure farmers and growers can continue to deliver for the environment, economy and local communities while producing more of the great British food we all enjoy.

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