• New scheme is worth considering
• Applications could need expertise
• Further standards being rolled out
Farmers joining Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme are being advised to ensure they avoid unnecessary costs during the application process.
The SFI pays farmers for meeting defined farm management standards. It is the entry level scheme for the government’s flagship Environmental Land Management initiative, which is being rolled out in place of the Basic Payment Scheme.
The SFI arable and grassland soil standards for example, require the completion of soil assessments, a soil management plan and – at the intermediate levels – the inclusion of multi-species cover crops or herbal leys.
In some situations, this could see two separate farm advisers involved in a successful application: a land agent who handles the paperwork and am agronomist who advises on the cropping or herbal ley establishment.
There is a risk farmers could pay once for this application process – and then face further charges from an adviser with the technical expertise required to complete the necessary actions, says Hutchinsons agronomist Ed Porter.
Making these options work properly for individual farms invariably requires in-depth discussions about topics, he says. They include species selection, rotational impact, risks and benefits to following crops, and options for building soil organic matter.
“The issue with other agri-environmental schemes in the past has been the lack of interaction with the agronomist, but the SFI standards are very much agronomist-led,” explains Mr Porter.
“You need someone with the knowledge, expertise and qualifications to have the technical discussions about the options available, assist with the application process, and conduct the necessary actions required for each standard.”
Furthermore, Defra plans for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and nutrient management standards – due to be launched this summer – will see farmers required to take BASIS-qualified advice, and get a nutrient management assessment.
“An agronomist has the technical expertise to talk through all of the options available, the actions needed, and how they will all fit together in a whole-farm situation. It’s more technical than just ticking a few boxes – it’s a whole-farm approach at field level.”
Available from Hutchinsons, the Omnia digital farming platform is an ideal tool for recording and completing all information necessary to meet SFI soils standard requirements in a functional and easy way, says Mr Porter.
Users can also easily generate a report summarising the information required for compliance. Omnia can also assist with nutrient plans – and will continually updated to ensure it remains relevant as SFI scheme requirements change.
“If farmers get onto this now, they will be well set up for when the next standards are launched in coming months,” Mr Porter adds.
“I truly believe that the SFI is the right way forward; it’s hugely beneficial to the environment and to the farmer, and may also allow some farmers to get the much-needed recognition for things they’ve been doing on farm for many years.
“It’s so important all farmers engage with the SFI process this year, as there will be a big drop in basic payments coming into effect during 2023.
The SFI will go some way to helping plug that gap – either directly, or indirectly through productivity improvements from taking up some of these options. Farmers have to engage with their agronomist to make sure everything is done properly.”
About the SFI
The Sustainable Farming Incentive pays farmers to carry out farming activities in a more environmentally sustainable way so food can be produced alongside the provision of environmental goods and services.
Defra launched the SFI with three standards in June 2022:
• arable and horticulture soils standard
• improved grassland soils standard
• moorland standard
Six new standards are being introduced in 2023. They are:
• nutrient management standard
• integrated pest management standard
• hedgerows standard
• arable and horticultural land standard
• improved grassland standard
• low/no input grassland standard
Defra says the offer is wide-ranging and will help the government achieve its goals for food production, the environment and climate. Farmers who already have an SFI agreement will be able to add these actions and more land.
SFI agreements last for 3 years. The government says many of the actions will help growers and livestock producers reduce their costs, improve their efficiency and improve the natural environment.
The nutrient and integrated pest management standards, for example, can help to optimise input usage, reducing costs while potentially maintaining or improving yields.