Small farmers are to be given support if they cannot afford to pay for the advice needed to access Defra’s post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), according to a top department official.
Sarah Church, director of Defra’s future farming and countryside programme, made the remarks at a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum (WFNF) event in London this week (March 14).
Under the department’s proposed plans, which were revealed last July by Farmers Guardian, farmers would have to hire an accredited adviser to help produce a ‘Whole Farm Plan’, which could include agroforestry and recreational pursuits as well as environmental measures.
The requirement has been controversial in some quarters because it is believed the cost would be prohibitive for smaller businesses.
Asked by FG how Defra planned to avoid farmers being locked out of the scheme altogether, Ms Church said: “All of our evidence shows if we provide these services for free, they are not ignored exactly, but they are not listened to as much and are not as influential as if people have to make at least a contribution towards it.
“If it is unaffordable for the smallest farmers, then yes, we would want to look at whether we can have clusters of farmers coming together.
“We would want to look at options for making it possible, because good quality advice and working on the ground with farmers so they can design something which works for their farm and their local area and the country is at the heart of what we are trying to do.”
Industry leaders have also been concerned there are not enough advisers available for the scheme to work.
Ms Church admitted this is a problem at the moment because ‘the market does not exist’.
“We are exploring what we would need to do to create that kind of supply of people,” she added.