• Farmers open to environmental work
• Balance with food production important
• Schemes must be viable to participate
Farmers are enthusiastic about improving soil quality – but remain wary about joining government schemes encouraging them to do so, reveals a survey.
Most producers are keen to deliver environmental benefits but are cautious about signing up to initiatives such as Defra’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, including the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), says the study.
That is one of the findings of the Future of Farming survey, carried out jointly by the Country Land & Business Association and Strutt & Parker. Almost 200 landowners and managers in England responded online during June and July 2022.
The study was carried out to gauge the way farmers and landowners feel about Defra’s new schemes being rolled out – and to identify how farms and estates are trying to build resilience within their businesses.
Concerns have been voiced about the slow uptake of schemes like the SFI, but the survey found farmers are much more open to taking steps to improve their environmental management and enhance nature than is sometimes portrayed.
The number of respondents who have carried out a carbon audit during the past three years was relatively low (23%). But 56% of respondents said they were already making plans to reduce the carbon footprint of their farming business.
Only 40% of the respondents confirmed they have or were planning to enter the SFI within the next three years – which seems low considering the government’s target of getting 70% of farmers signed up by 2028.
But nearly two-thirds said they had signed up or intended to join the more established Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
Some 88% said they would be likely or very likely to take action to protect or improve soil quality and 82% said they would be likely or very likely to manage land to increase biodiversity – two key elements of the existing SFI.
The public goods that farmers and landowners are less enthusiastic about delivering are supporting public access, managing land to reduce flood risk and restoring cultural heritage, although many of these are situation dependent.
Asked how they were improving business resilience, the most popular answers were diversification into non-farming enterprises, benchmarking, taking professional advice and changing crop rotations or livestock enterprises due to expected climate change.
CLA president Mark Tufnell said: “This survey has provided useful insights into farmer and land manager attitudes to the environment and signals that while many farmers and land managers are focused on food production, they are still keen to take steps to protect and enhance the environment given the right policies and payments.”
The 40% intention to enter into SFI was encouraging, said Mr Tufnell.
“When asked why they had not entered SFI in 2022, the responses pointed to concerns about payment rates, but more frequently it was about waiting for more standards to become available or waiting to see if it would be a success.
“Only 2% said they were just not interested. These findings support the CLA’s call to Defra to fast-track the launch of new SFI standards and provide early clarity on payment rates so that farmers and land managers make informed decisions about the scheme.
“Similarly, it is encouraging to see the level of interest in Countryside Stewardship. Defra should capitalise on this and ensure that the scheme remains available until the replacement Local Nature Recovery Scheme is ready for full launch.”
Rhodri Thomas, head of rural for Strutt & Parker, described the survey results as particularly timely – especially given the highly polarised debate around land use and the future of Defra’s ELM schemes.