SFI expansion welcome but deliverability questions remain

Environment and climate
Wildflowers in a field

Defra Secretary of State Steve Barclay has announced a significant upgrade to the government’s ELMs (Environmental Land Management schemes) offer including 50 new actions, a streamlined application process and increased payment rates.

Speaking at the 2024 Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Barclay reiterated the government’s support for British farmers and outlined the updated offer for 2024 which has been designed using farmers’ feedback.

Mr Barclay said there would be around 50 new actions designed to work across all types of farm businesses including actions for agroforestry and those driving forward agricultural technology such as robotic mechanical weeding, as well as a 10% funding uplift (on average) for SFI (Sustainable Farming Incentive) and CS (Countryside Stewardship) agreements within ELMs, with those in existing agreements set to benefit from the increase automatically.

“We have listened to farmers’ feedback and set out the biggest upgrades to our farming schemes since leaving the EU, with more money, more choice and more trust to support domestic food production whilst also protecting the environment,” Mr Barclay said.

"We’re also making it easier for farmers of every farm type and size to enter the schemes, and I encourage everyone to take a look at how you can join the thousands of other farmers and land managers who are already receiving our backing through the schemes.”

Farmers will be able to submit their applications for the 2024 offer from this summer. More details are expected to be published in the coming months.

Transition details still not clear

NFU Vice President David Exwood said the news on increased payments and the raft of new options, including the promise to build on the current CS scheme was welcome, but added that “we still have more questions than answers around the deliverability of these new options”.

“It remains hugely frustrating that nearly six years on from the Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, government is still a long way behind on its commitments.”

Highlighting the 50% reduction in direct payments which will begin to hit farming businesses this year, David called on the government to urgently deliver “business critical detail on how farmers and growers will smoothly transition from existing agreements to the new offer”.

It remains hugely frustrating that nearly six years on from the Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, government is still a long way behind on its commitments.”

NFU Vice President David Exwood

The Vice President also reiterated the NFU’s ask for Defra to undertake a mid-term review, adding that an “urgent assessment is needed of the agricultural transition on food production and farm business viability”.

“It is imperative that SFI has sustainable food production at its core, with enough options that sit around productive farming. For this to happen, it is absolutely vital that there’s a better balance between policies that focus on enhancing food production as well as the environment,” David said.

Upgraded offer at a glance

Additional improvements to the scheme include:

  • From this summer there will be a streamlined single application process for farmers to apply for the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier, with a rolling application window for both schemes.
  • A shift in the structure of payments for some options, from a focus on creation of habitats to more emphasis on maintenance of such habitats, resulting in an increase in maintenance payments for example, the payment for maintaining species rich grassland, rising from £182 to £646 per hectare.
  • More options will be available in SFI providing shorter length agreements of three years. This makes the schemes more accessible for tenant farmers.
  • Premium payments for 21 options with the biggest environmental impact or combinations of actions that deliver benefits at scale, such as £765 per hectare for nesting plots for lapwing, and £1,242 per hectare for connecting river and floodplain habitat. The options include lowland peat, moorland grazing and agroforestry.

Defra has said the detail for the new ELMs offer will be published later in the year. The future offer will still operate on a ‘pick and mix’ basis, and farmers who have already applied for the current SFI offer will have the ability to add SFI 24/CS options when they become available.

In addition to information published today on the development of SFI and CS, Defra gave an update on a range of support scheme, guidance, and regulatory related matters.

NFU Vice President David Exwood said the NFU “remains committed to working with Defra to improve ELMs for all farming sector to ensure we get the uptake needed to deliver Defra’s own statutory environmental targets and to ensure a future agricultural sector which is resilient and thriving”.

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