SFI slammed as being 'open to the few' as farmers face 'holes in finance'

NFU President Minette Batters says the government's current SFI scheme is "open to the few and not the majority"
NFU President Minette Batters says the government's current SFI scheme is "open to the few and not the majority"

The NFU has criticised the government's Sustainable Farming Incentive as being 'open to the few' while many farmers face 'significant holes in their finances' due to BPS withdrawal.

While the union has welcomed a number of new Defra announcements on farming support, it warned that more still needed to be done as many farmers faced a 'cash-flow crisis'.

It comes after one of the most challenging years in farming – record extremes in weather, high agricultural inflation, supply chains disputed and the resulting empty supermarket shelves.

The NFU had called for government to “do the right thing” and bridge the "massive financial black hole" in farm support caused by problems with the changeover in support schemes from the old BPS to the new Sustainable Farm Incentive (SFI).

Serious challenges have been mounting with significant delays to the start of the SFI, which should have been up and running to deliver payments by December.

At the same time farmers are facing ongoing reductions in BPS, with the pot being reduced by £720 million so far, according to the NFU.

The union's president Minette Batters said: “We have heard a number of welcome announcements this week, and credit where it’s due, farmers will be pleased government has listened to them.

"But the backdrop to these pieces of good news is that many farmers continue to face a bleak end to the year, with money they were promised, and rely on, not coming.

“Delays in the rollout of the new scheme, coupled with reductions in the current scheme, mean most farmers have been unable to access the new SFI while facing significant holes in their finances from the withdrawal of BPS.”

Speaking at the Back British Farming Day reception in parliament this week, Defra Secretary Therese Coffey unveiled a number of new measures.

Positive news for farmers included support for a ‘buy British button’ in online supermarket shopping and a new grant scheme for rooftop solar panel installation.

She also confirmed that farmers enrolling in new environmental support schemes will be able to use them to meet public procurement standards.

And a new £4m fund was unveiled to help upgrade small abattoirs to improve animal welfare, business efficiency and productivity.

Further, after the NFU had called on ministers to “do the right thing”, Ms Coffey recognised the issues with SFI, committing that those farmers able to sign up in October would be paid 25% of the money this year once their claims were agreed.

It means those farmers that are able to apply for SFI in October are being promised a percentage of their first payments before the end of the year.

Mrs Batters said while this announcement would provide welcome progress, "it doesn’t go far enough" as the current SFI scheme was "open to the few and not the majority".

She said the government had made promises 'countless times' that the replacement to BPS would be "open to all, less bureaucratic and offer a profitable and seamless transition from old to the new".

"What we have today, after years in the making, is still a million miles away," the NFU president said.

"The lack of budget transparency in Defra makes it almost impossible to know where the BPS money, initially earmarked for SFI in 2023-24, has gone.

“In the short-term, we need the government to bridge the gap it has created in taking away one set of payments before delivering access to their replacements by ensuring farm support payments made in December are not capped as currently planned.”