Soil health and regenerative farming techniques will be at the heart of the government’s new Incentive Program for Sustainable Agriculture (SFI), which will open for applications from farmers in England next year.

Some 938 farmers are now testing options to improve soil health – and Defra says it has already learned a lot to help develop rules and standards for the 2022 program.

For SFI 2022, farmers will be paid between £ 20 / ha and £ 58 / ha to protect soils. These payments will be made quarterly, each representing 25% of the overall payment.

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Speaking at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Rural Business Conference in London on December 2, Defra Secretary George Eustice explained why improving soil health was the goal initial SFI.

“It focuses on soil health because the health of our soils is essential for improving both biodiversity, water quality and the production of a healthy crop,” said Mr Eustice.

Three soil standards will be available at the start of deployment of the device:

  • Arable and horticultural crops
  • Improved grasslands
  • Moors and wild pastures (initiation level).

Defra has confirmed that it will fund an annual visit to the veterinarian for a check-up on the health and welfare of the livestock. This will initially be available to farmers eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (RPB) and raising more than 50 pigs or 20 sheep or cattle.

Space for stewardship

Farmers will be allowed to have an SFI agreement on the same piece of land as a campaign stewardship agreement, but they cannot be paid twice for the same action. Actions must also be compatible.

IFC is the first program in the new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management (ELM) program, which will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and pay farmers “public money for public goods”.

More details on the other two ELM programs – Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery – will be released in the new year.

Deployment of the incentive for sustainable agriculture

October 2021 Pilot project underway involving 938 farmers

Mid-2022 Early launch and expansion with emphasis on soil health

End of 2024 Test, trials and piloting to finish and diagram to fully open

The government wants to attract at least 70% of eligible farmers from all types of farms claiming BPS (around 88,000) to the SFI, which aims to ensure that no soil is left bare during the winter, as this can cause runoff and soil erosion.

But critics say the SFI payment rates are “disappointing” and not enough to encourage farmers to apply. Farmers were told not to expect an “like” replacement for BPS.

If the number of registrations for SFI is low, however, the Treasury could divert the money elsewhere.

With agriculture being a decentralized political issue, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are developing their own post-Brexit programs.

Payment rates and requirements

The Arable and Horticultural Soils standard offers between £ 22 / ha and £ 40 / ha per year, and includes activities such as analysis of soil organic matter (OM), soil assessment and production of a soil management plan.

At least 70% of the land in the standard must have green cover during the winter months (December to February). This can include any type of green cover, including fall sown crops and weed stubble.

Organic matter must be added to one-third of the soil each year; for example, green covers should be cultivated every third year on plots.

For the intermediate level (£ 40 / ha per year) all of the above requirements will apply, but multispecies green cover must cover at least 20% of the land.

The Improved Grassland Soils standard offers between £ 28 / ha and £ 58 / ha per year, and includes activities such as analysis of soil OM, soil assessment, and production of a land management plan. soils.

A maximum of 5% bare soil will be allowed during the winter, and the remaining 95% will need to be covered with greenery to protect the soil.

For the interim payment (£ 58 / ha per year) all of the above requirements will apply, including seagrass on at least 20% of the land.

Defra plans to add an advanced level to these two standards from 2023.

For the Moorland and Rough Grazing introductory standard, farmers will be paid £ 148 per year for each agreement, plus an additional payment rate of £ 6.45 / ha.

Intermediate and advanced levels for the moors will follow later in the SFI deployment.

Farmer tenants

Defra says he’s working with the Tenant Farmers Association, CLA and NFU to make SFI work for sharecroppers.

The SFI program agreements will last for three years, instead of five years for Countryside Stewardship, with the possibility of making changes every 12 months.

During the anticipated deployment in 2022, on a transitional basis, farmers two or three years away from their lease will also be able to enter these lands in the SFI. They will be able to leave the system after two years without penalty.

There will be no landlord authorization requirement for a tenant to enter SFI 2022. But tenants should check their rental agreements to make sure they can participate in the program before applying.

Mixed reaction

Farmers’ organizations have given a mixed reaction to the SFI 2022 proposals.

The NFU said it was essential for the IFC to recognize the significant costs farmers could incur in providing public goods, and fully reflect this in payment rates, at a time when out-of-pocket payments were being phased out. .

The AHDB hailed the increased flexibility of the SFI 2022 agreements, saying farmers had the option of entering a field or two and reviewing the situation after a year.

Environmental groups attack SFI’s “lack of ambition”

Environmentalists accused Defra of failing to protect nature and wildlife in its new sustainable land management program.

The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and the RSPB said a “shocking lack of ambition” in the Sustainable Agriculture Incentive Program (SFI) had broken Brexit promises and jeopardized the country’s environmental plan. government over 25 years.

They accused the government of failing to come up with a proper plan to boost nature-friendly agriculture and tackle the losses of native wildlife seen over the past three decades as a result of modern agriculture.

Questionable benefits

Charities said the SFI program – the first that every farmer can access under Defra’s new ELM policy – risked creating a status quo by funding basic good practices that in some cases would not bring benefits. no additional benefit for nature.

Craig Bennett, Managing Director of Wildlife Trusts, said:

“There are so many things that farmers could be rewarded for, like restoring peatlands and using ambitious measures to keep soil and pollutants from entering rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon.

“It is an absolute scandal that the government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity.”

Will farmers join SFI?

Cattle producer Adam Quinney said the proposed payments under the Sustainable Agriculture Incentive (SFI) could be useful – if the program is simple and not bogged down in bureaucracy.

“We are definitely joining SFI next year,” said Mr Quinney, who raises 100 suckler cows, 150 ewes and arable land in Sambourne, Warwickshire.

Adam Quinney © Jonathon Page

“These lower payments could be very beneficial, but if it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare, people will just focus on increasing productivity.”

Mr. Quinney already performs regular soil tests on the prairies to make sure he is applying the right amount of manure to the right fields.

The biggest problem, he said, might be convincing his landlords, with whom he has short rental contracts. But it was good to see Defra introducing flexibility for tenants to participate in SFI.

Reinvest

Mr. Quinney has always used the Single Farm Payment to invest in his business and increase productivity.

But he said the application window for farmers to apply for a subsidy is often short and piecemeal, and it might not coincide with the farmer’s business plan.

“What would be more flexible for a farm would be to have a two to three year investment period with Defra to have an agreed amount of money to withdraw over time to match the farm’s business plan. “, he added.

Initial costs

Andrew Blenkiron, manager of the Euston Estate, in Thetford, Norfolk, where approximately 2,630 ha is cultivated “in hand”, greeted the SFI 2022 proposals cautiously.

Most of the estate’s 607 ha of meadows are permanent pastures and require few inputs under high-level stewardship, so the soils have not been tested for organic matter.

This would take a ‘big sum of money’ out of the base payment of £ 28 / ha in the first year, he said.

Andrew Blenkiron standing in a field

Andrew Blenkiron © Tim Scrivener

The farm is already receiving payments for grassland maintenance for native species as part of existing stewardship programs, and it appears that this area will only be eligible for the level of introduction of the SFI Standard for Soils of meadows.

Mr Blenkiron said covering at least 70% of the 2,023 ha of arable land with green cover during the winter would be good.

But he felt “nervous” about the late February deadline, as many cover crops were grazed by sheep, and he liked to clear land for early spring crops.

“We’ll have to sit down and see if it’s worth it,” Blenkiron said. “Since our BPS has been reduced, I must try to recover some of it.”

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