'Less flex' for farmers in new expanded 2024 SFI offer

The complexity of the SFI process demands careful planning to avoid pitfalls and ensure compliance, GSC Grays says
The complexity of the SFI process demands careful planning to avoid pitfalls and ensure compliance, GSC Grays says

There are winners and losers in the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) options, but it is clear that the 2023 scheme offered more opportunities for farmers, according to an expert.

Details of the 2024 SFI offer have been released and farmers who secured their applications under the 2023 regime will benefit from greater flexibility and the opportunity to 'top up' with the new options coming in September.

The offer will be open to expressions of interest from this month and for the first time, there is no requirement to have been a Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) claimant.

The scheme's 2024 agreements will last for either three or five years, depending on the length of the longest-term action.

Speaking about the new SFI, Robert Sullivan, head of farm business at rural agency GSC Grays, said farmers needed support now more than ever, despite the schemes intention to be easy for them to manage.

Given the increasing complexity and frequent changes in the scheme, farmers needed to stay informed and adapt accordingly.

He said: "It is crucial for farmers to seek advice and thoroughly review the detailed guidance to navigate the 102 available actions effectively."

There are 23 new actions, 22 are carried over from the 2023 scheme with 57 progressing from Countryside Stewardship (CS) mid-tier.

Mr Sullivan said, however, that the complexity of the process demanded careful planning to avoid pitfalls and ensure compliance.

Defra has confirmed that CS higher-tier will continue as a standalone scheme within Environmental Land Management (ELM) and holders of existing mid-tier and higher-tier CS agreements can end their agreements early.

"The launch of the no-till and precision farming options are also significant developments," Mr Sullivan explained.

Under the expanded scheme farmers can select any combination of SFI actions if their land is eligible. Each action sets out which other actions they can do on the same area of land.

However, Mr Sullivan said there were benefits to the new scheme. "Despite some constraints, the integration of Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements into the SFI is a positive development," he said.

"It offers shorter year agreements and improved cash flow, especially beneficial for tenant farmers. Additionally, the expanded eligibility to include those not previously eligible for BPS is a welcome change."

With an election on 4 July, he said further changes in agricultural policy could be on the horizon.

He concluded: "Farmers should remain alert and be prepared for additional adjustments in the farming sector that were previously protected under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)."