Our environment forum chair's view on SFI and ELMs

An image of NFU Environment Forum chair Richard Bramley in front of a combine harvester

The NFU's environment forum chair Richard Bramley considers Defra's recent announcements about the Sustainable Farming Incentive as part of its future Environmental Land Management schemes.

Since 24 June 2016, and our departure from the EU and the often criticised Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we’ve known that farming was likely to see some considerable change driven by government policy.

I don’t feel that old, but I have seen IACS, AAPS, SPS and latterly BPS through the CAP. Attached to this we had CS, ES and new CS as ways to look to support improvements to the environment and various investment schemes to boost productivity and efficiency.

The proposed replacement, delivering ‘payment for public goods’ and encompassed in the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), has been eagerly awaited now that BPS payments have started to be phased out.

What we know about ELMs

On 2 December we got the first detail of how the first tranche of ELMs open to BPS claimants, the Sustainable Farming Incentive 2022 (SFI22), will start to play out.

Many, for different reasons, aren’t happy. It's not broad enough, it's not rewarding the best, it's only paying for what farmers are already doing and payments are too low to be of interest/fill the gap.

Frustration borne out of frustration, built up over a few years of anticipation and expectation.

However, we must not forget that this is the start of the transition. BPS is gradually being eroded, but a chunk of it is still there. Admittedly, our past experience with delivery suggests that we should have started ELMs a year ago or paused the reductions.

My personal viewpoint

My 200ha BPS claim for 2022 might lose 25% of its 2020 value. But an SFI22 payment on the entry level soils standard returns close to half of the deduction and at intermediate level just under 95% of the original BPS value. Equally, SFI22 will evolve, with standards added to it each year by 2025.

As it currently stands, and in the absence of the promised additional standards and detail, it is certainly falling short and in light of the dramatic changes in commodity and input prices this should be addressed with urgency. For many, this transition is about survival of their businesses and the huge mental stress this external process is creating.

The NFU is making it very clear that we need to make sure this ‘start’ is very much built on to deliver the aims we need:

  • A healthy rural economy
  • Producing for our needs, and
  • Protecting and enhancing the environment.
For many, this transition is about survival of their businesses and the huge mental stress this external process is creating.
Every farm should be able to access and receive a fair recognition and opportunity as they adapt away from the old system.
Richard Bramley, NFU environment forum chair

Every farm should be able to access and receive a fair recognition and opportunity as they adapt away from the old system.

I’ve felt for a while now that, having first evaluated the potential for ‘payment for public goods’ as being one which could possibly help to address many of the issues on farms, it connected with farming as a positive move. However, as time has ticked on, has the sheer scale of the undertaking gradually started to dawn on those tasked with delivery? Hence the delays. Hence the painful graduality of the process.

Every farm is different

Every farm is different – crops, livestock, topography, skills, soils, equipment, owned or rented (various iterations), business type (varied), habitats, opportunity, economics. This makes coming up something which looks to address the fundamental problems we face in farming in a neat, easy to administrate package incredibly hard.

So fair play to the Defra team for making a start (albeit late in my opinion). Defra’s original plans did not have a scheme available to all until 2024. The early roll-out scheme is a consequence of NFU activity. Let’s hope through continued co-design we can help them get this right.

NFU impact

There are a number of places where we can see that the NFU’s efforts have shaped the SFI so far:

  • 'Sustainable farming' now recognised
  • More flexibility with agreements
  • More opportunity for tenants
  • More frequent payment rates
  • The narrative of a more proportionate and pragmatic approach to monitoring moving away from a culture of penalties.

There is also, encouragingly, a positive indication of government’s support for private environmental markets to work alongside public funded schemes.

But let’s not forget why we are in the situation. Farming has had various iterations of ‘support’ (interference) for decades, even centuries. The current scheme wasn’t invented by farmers for farmers, but the duration of them means they have become crude tools to attempt to deliver various outcomes to address the symptoms of our modern society and its economy. Farms (and food systems) have inadvertently become economically reliant on them in the process.

Moving forward

So let’s take ELMs for what it is – a way to gradually steer all farms (and it needs to be all) onto the most appropriate path to continue to deliver ‘environmentally sustainable farming’ – Defra’s words. From my perspective it needs to allow farmers to produce the high quality, homegrown products in a way which not only protects the very environment upon which we depend for our survival, but enhances it over time, with fair reward to the person or business delivering the goods and taking the risks.

It’s vital that as more detail comes forward we continue to engage. I would urge all members to take time to understand this new process and maybe expect a little more time might be needed in the office later next spring.

As this detail becomes clearer, plan as best you can for the changes it might lead to and stay tuned in to NFU Bulletins on the subject.

We will continue to work with Defra to ensure the farming voice is first and foremost in getting a scheme which works on all fronts, but this is likely to continue to be a process of development rather than an overnight change.

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