Farmers deciding to enter the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) pilot scheme later this year following a recent call for expressions of interest will have the choice of eight ‘standards’ including two which are of particular relevance to arable businesses.
These are the Arable and horticultural land standard and the Arable and horticultural soil standard. Payments in the pilot for the former range from £28 up to £74/hectare and in the latter, from £30 up to £59/ha.
Within each standard there are three levels for participants to choose from – introductory, intermediate and advanced with payments rising, accordingly.
For the Arable and horticultural land standard, growers must manage their land to increase farmland biodiversity, including wild bird and pollinator populations.
To qualify for the Arable and horticultural soil standard, growers are expected to maintain and improve the condition and structure of their soil to promote clean water, and improve climate resilience, biodiversity and food production.
Farmers are currently being invited by Defra to make expressions of interest in taking part in piloting SFI with first agreements going live in October 2021.
Strutt & Parker farming consultant Rob Wilkinson says land parcels which are already part of an agri-environment scheme are not eligible for inclusion in the SFI, which will rule out significant numbers of farmers from applying for the pilot.
He advises anyone considering the scheme to do their research to make sure it is the right fit for the farm. “The SFI scheme is being rolled out at the same time as applications for Countryside Stewardship are open, so careful navigation between all the different options available will be required.”
CSS will remain open to new applications until 2023, with the final round of agreements starting in January 2024, so it remains a good option for farmers who would prefer to wait to see what happens with the SFI, suggests Mr Wilkinson.
“At first glance, it does look as if Mid-Tier CSS could be the better option for many of my clients, applying this year for an agreement starting in 2022. The advantage of the Mid-Tier scheme over the SFI is that we already know the payment rates, what to do and what the requirements are in terms of claims and evidence.
“SFI seems simple, but there are still lots of questions to be answered about what will be required, how to put it into practice on farm and how to calculate what you get paid for what.”
For example, in the Arable and horticultural soil standard one of the advanced actions is to: ‘reduce soil damage by limiting the area of the field that is travelled on’. “What does that mean and how do you measure that?” asks Mr Wilkinson.
“Everyone uses tramlines once the crop is established. So people are only trafficking a small percentage of the crop until harvest. If it means using controlled traffic farming, why not say that?”
In the Arable and horticultural land standard, Mr Wilkinson highlights the action: ‘better target your nutrient application by carrying out soil mapping’. “A lot of people will ask questions about this one and what it will add. There is a danger we could end up in a situation where the price of soil mapping services goes up because the farmer gets a subsidy – which is a worry to the farming industry.”
“Hopefully, as Defra publishes further details of the pilot over the next couple of months, these sort of questions will be answered. This will allow farmers to make an informed choice about the best way forward for their business,” says Mr Wilkinson.