SFI updates welcomed by farming community

A much anticipated update to agri environment schemes was announced at the Oxford Farming Conference on 4th January. Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out Defra’s plan and shortly after details were published online.

The update begins by stating that Defra’s approach to agricultural reform is to maintain production whilst reaching environmental targets by supporting productivity and innovation. To encourage more people to sign up to the schemes Defra are making them more attractive, fair and workable. 

You can read the full Agricultural Transition Plan 2024 Update here.

The key headlines are:

  • Update to payment rates – on average 10% increase. Live CS and SFI agreements will benefit from 1st Jan 2024
  • 50 new actions to Environmental Land Management schemes
  • Single application service for CS and SFI making schemes more flexible and easier to access
  • Premium payments for 21 high priority actions 
  • Removing barriers to change – expanding permitted development rights
  • Keeping options update on a rolling 3 year cycle with a proportion being updated every year to update payment rates and/or prescriptions
  • Rolling application windows for CS and SFI starting in the summer 
  • paying for agroforestry, precision farming and no-till practices for the first time

Later in 2024 ahead of applications opening Defra will publish information on:

  • the actions – including the full details on what farmers will need to do to get paid, eligibility and which actions can be combined on the same land, and when each of the actions will become available to apply for
  • the new and updated capital items that will be available
  • the scheme rules for the combined SFI and CS offer
  • how and when to apply

The Technical Annex has information on new payment rates for options and the CS pages on gov.uk have been updated with the new payment rates for CS options.

Among the newly announced SFI actions are:

  • No-till farming – £73/ha
  • Spring, summer or autumn cover crops  – £153-£163/ha 
  • Variable rate application of nutrients – £27/ha
  • Robotic mechanical weeding – £150/ha
  • Robotic non-mechanical weeding – £101/ha
  • Maintain high density in-field agroforestry £849/ha
  • Maintain medium density in-field agroforestry £595/ha
  • Maintain low density in-field agroforestry £385/ha
  • ​​Maintain very low density in-field agroforestry £248/ha

The announcement has been welcomed by many farming organisations. A spokesperson from LEAF said: ‘We welcome the government’s bold and ambitious approach to transforming our farming and food systems and are extremely encouraged to see a clear commitment to the core approaches to sustainability that have been at the heart of LEAF’s work: whole farm, nature-based, Integrated Pest Management, improving soil management and protecting our valuable natural resources. Co-design of the detail going forward is key. It is encouraging that Defra has recognised much of the great work delivered by our farmers as well as embracing many of the industry’s ideas for sustainable farming and food production in designing this new agricultural policy for England.’

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.’

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president Victoria Vyvyan said: ‘There is a lot to like about SFI 2024. The increased payment rates and the variety of new actions show that the voice of the CLA has been heard. However, we are very concerned that farmers will have to wait until this summer, at the earliest, before the application window opens. This means that, at best, farmers will receive no SFI 24 income until the end of the year whilst facing remorseless cuts to the Basic Payment.’

‘We have significant concerns about the readiness of the Rural Payment Agency’s IT systems to deal with the new options and the streamlining of ELMs and Countryside Stewardship. There is real danger that the delivery will be held-up as it was in 2023, and that the application window will be pushed back.’

The new SFI actions will doubtless be among the conversations and discussions at the next NNCG workshop, taking place at Holkham on Thursday 8 February. Please contact Sarah Juggins (sarah@nncg.org.uk) to book your place.