Defra unveils payment rates for Sustainable Farming Incentive

George Eustice has revealed the payments rates for the SFI, the UK's post-Brexit land management scheme
George Eustice has revealed the payments rates for the SFI, the UK's post-Brexit land management scheme

The government has announced the payment rates for the UK's new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which will pay farmers to deliver environmental goals.

Defra Secretary George Eustice set out more information on the SFI on Thursday, which is being introduced as part of a post-Brexit reform of farmers' subsidies.

The SFI - the first of the UK's new environmental land management schemes replacing the EU's Common Agriculture Policy - will be rolled out next year.

The reform is the most significant change to UK farming and land management in over five decades.

As part of it, farmers will receive payment for taking actions which generate environmental benefits, such as improving grasslands or soils.

Initially, three standards will be up for selection from next year, Mr Eustice explained, these being arable and horticultural soils, improved grassland soils, and moorland and rough grazing.

For the arable and horticultural soils standard, he said farmers will be paid between £22 and £40 per hectare, depending on the activity level.

The introductory level includes testing of soil organic matter and 70% or more of land covered with green cover over the winter, while the intermediate level includes activities such as 70% or more of land covered with multi-species green cover.

For the improved grassland soils standard, farmers will be paid between £28 and £58 per hectare, also depending on the activity level.

The introductory level includes activity such as producing a soil management plan, while the intermediate level includes herbal leys on at least 15% of land.

Finally, farmers will be paid £148 fixed per agreement per year for the moorland and rough grazing standard, plus an additional variable payment rate of £6.45 per hectare for the introductory level. An intermediate and advance level will follow later in the rollout.

Speaking at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) conference on Thursday (2 December), Mr Eustice said: “Today we are publishing more detail on our new Sustainable Farming Incentive for next year.

"It focuses on soil health, because the health of our soils is critical to improving both biodiversity, water quality and the production of a healthy crop.

"We will pay a more generous payment rate than previous EU schemes. There will be fewer rules and more trust.

"We will never address the complex environmental challenges we have unless we incentivise changes across most of the farmed landscape and that is what we aim to do."

In the future, Mr Eustice explained that new SFI standards will be introduced, including integrated pest management, nutrient management and hedgerows in 2023.

Agroforestry, remaining levels of the moorland standard, low and no input grassland, water body buffering and a farmland biodiversity standard will be introduced a year after.

Meanwhile, organic, on-farm woodland, orchards/specialist horticulture will be rolled out in 2025, he said.

Mark Tufnell, president of the CLA, said the UK's new agricultural schemes had the "potential to be the most progressive and environmentally responsible in the world".

But he warned that farmers were 'deeply concerned' about the transition from the EU's subsidies to a new regime, particularly regarding cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

"Whilst high commodity prices in some sectors will help cushion the blow, we should remember that many farms operate on small profit margins," Mr Tufnell said.

"It is therefore incumbent on government to ensure every farmer is supported in the years ahead."

The National Sheep Association (NSA) welcomed the roadmap, but raised concerns over the effect of the transition and the level of support in the first few years.

Chief executive Phil Stocker said: “It will not please everyone, some will not be welcoming any move away from BPS, many will realise that much of the money is in return for doing specific things – some that carry a cost, and others will say what is being offered is not ambitious enough.

“There are still some questions and clarity sought such as capital payment details still not being clear for some grasslands, beyond soil standards, which have been included in the SFI Pilot, also for fencing, hedge-planting, stonewalling, organic farms and even agroforestry and woodland."

The UK’s three largest nature charities, the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB, warned that the SFI 'does not bode well for nature, climate, or farming'.

As the industry accounts for around 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, they said 'transformation is critical to help tackle the climate emergency'.

“This government is letting this opportunity slip through their fingers by not supporting nature-friendly farming and not delivering on previous promises," the charities said.

Defra said it will provide information on the Landscape Recovery and the Local Nature Recovery schemes – the other schemes which will complement the SFI – in the new year.