Reaction has been mixed to the Government's latest announcement on farming support schemes, with funding uplifts welcomed, but concerns raised about delays to the opening of the 2024 Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay set out changes to the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs) in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday.

The updates include:

  • A 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) driven by increased payment rates, with uplifts automatically applied to existing agreements.
  • A streamlined single application process for farmers to apply for SFI and CS Mid Tier.
  • Around 50 new actions that farmers can get paid for across all types of farm businesses, including actions for agroforestry and those driving forward agricultural technology such as robotic mechanical weeding.
  • Enhanced payments for "creation" and "maintenance" options to improve the long term incentives for farmers to create habitats and ensure they are rewarded for looking after habitats once they have created them. For example, the payment for maintaining species rich grassland, rises from £182 to £646 per hectare.
  • Premium payments for actions 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.
  • More options will be available in SFI providing shorter length agreements of three years. This makes the schemes more accessible for tenant farmers.

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.

Mr Barclay said the updated offer has been designed using farmers’ feedback and aims to bring more farmers onboard the schemes, with applications opening this summer.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Steve Barclay MP, new Defra Minister. Pic from UK Parliament

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,” he said.

Highlighting the 50 per cent reduction in direct payments which will begin to hit farming businesses this year, Mr Exwood 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”.

Darlington and Stockton Times: New payment schemes are on offer for evironmentally-friendly farming

He 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”.

But he 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,” said Mr Exwood.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: "Although complex at first sight we are encouraged by the intention to have a single application process that brings together the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) actions. NSA is keen to see these schemes work for farmers on the basis that we believe sheep farming already delivers in many beneficial ways for the environment, and should be rewarded for this, and, with the right incentives there is a lot more that can be done to further improve our natural resources, wildlife habitats and nature, and our impact on the climate while also enhancing enterprise productivity.

“NSA welcomes the uplift in SFI and CS payment rates and also the expanded offers for grassland and moorland options and new agroforestry actions that can work alongside grazing animals.”

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Mr Stocker continued: “NSA has been given clarification that this 2024 offer will be the point where we will depart from eligibility being only for those that had registered for BPS, another point of progress that NSA fully welcomes even though we can expect a steady roll out to avoid early application problems. Furthermore, NSA has received confirmation that farm carbon footprinting will be included as a funded option – and linked with advice to progress any options identified. NSA is particularly pleased about this as we see carbon footprinting being increasingly demanded by supply chains and voluntary assurance schemes, but we know it carries a cost and benefits from independent professional input.

“NSA is continuing conversations with Defra to make the case that a new ‘facilitation fund’, to support collaborative and connected environmental actions, can be extended to the facilitation of animal health actions such as the control of sheep scab, connected to the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. This facilitation was found to be central to the success of the recent RDPE sheep scab programme ‘For Flocks Sake’.”

The CLA (Country Land and Business Association) expressed its concern that delays to the opening of the 2024 SFI scheme will be disastrous for farm businesses.

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 CLA remains a supporter of Environmental Land Management schemes but time is running out. Government has been listening and learning on actions and payment rates, but without effective delivery the schemes will lose the confidence and trust of the farming community.”

CLA director north Lucinda Douglas added: “Defra’s repeated underspend of the farming budget, amounting to more than £200m in the last two years, has knocked farmers’ confidence at a crucial time in the agricultural transition process.

“We fully support the government’s Environmental Land Management schemes and the model of public payment for public goods, but it must now urgently deliver on its promises and funding pledges.

“This money should be with farmers who are impacted upon most by ever-increasing cuts to BPS. Farmers are already delivering environmental outcomes while feeding the nation and SFI payments should support the sector to enable the continued delivery, rather than contributing to its financial turmoil and future uncertainty.”