Farmers want to see less red tape and better internet access so that they can engage with the delivery of the post-Brexit 'public money for public goods' scheme, research says.
Lack of engagement with the UK's smaller and more remote farmers 'risked failure' of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, the study said.
Experts at the Universities of Sheffield and Reading interviewed rural charities, farmer-run networks, advisors and agri-environment workers to uncover why policymakers find some farmers ‘harder to reach’.
Complex bureaucracy, lack of trusted advisory support, and poor internet connections were key issues that prevented them from getting involved, they said.
The post-Brexit Environmental Land Management scheme will replace European Union subsidies from 2024.
The ‘public money for public goods’ approach will reward land managers in England for improving biodiversity and delivering cleaner air and water, healthier soils and flood protection.
Defra has committed to 'co-designing' the new policy with farmers, but previous consultations have only seen larger farmers and organisations getting involved in the process.
The study warned that failing to engage harder to reach farmers risked 'damaging consequences' for the environment and threatened the viability of farms.
Along with the impact of the 'digital divide' and limited access to broadband, the study found that past experiences with bureaucracy and distrust of Defra and other agencies put many farmers off responding to the efforts to involve them in policymaking.
Lack of time, social isolation, and age of the farmer were also found to make it difficult for farmers to contribute and participate in the co-design of ELM.
The study showed that paying farmers correctly and on time was crucial to ELM’s success - as late payments have contributed to an erosion of trust and faith in previous schemes.
The researchers have recommended a simplified scheme design and the creation of non-digital ways for farmers to get involved.
They called on ministers to review implementation timescales regularly and fund farm advisors with strong interpersonal skills and training in agri-environment issues, to support farmers through the transition to the new scheme.
Researchers said this was 'key' to achieving the aim of protecting the environment, as socially isolated farmers were more likely to use unsustainable farming practices.
Dr Ruth Little, of the University of Sheffield, warned that farmers must have a say in the design of the scheme to 'keep farmers in business after Brexit'.
"Defra have made a commitment to co-designing ELM with stakeholders and our research offers insights on how to make these conversations as inclusive as possible.
“Our findings showed some farmers are forced to drive to the nearest McDonald’s to access decent wifi, and many find the online schemes difficult to engage with.
"The government should provide IT assistance and invest in rural broadband – not just for our economy, but for the environment too.”
Dr David Christian Rose, of the University of Reading added that farmer engagement in agri-environment schemes was 'dependent' on the availability of 'free and trusted' advice.
He added that payments must be provided on time with 'no harsh penalties for administrative mistakes'.
“Our findings show that known solutions, including providing free advice, improving rural broadband and non-digital response options, reducing scheme complexity must be prioritised to ensure that ELM participation is high.
"ELM must also be attractive to land managers not widely in current agri-environment schemes, such as pigs, poultry, horticulture, hobby farmers and large landowners,” he said.