Details of new Defra sustainable farming scheme unveiled as farmers urged to take part in pilots

Farmers in England are being encouraged to take part in the pilot of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, which will reward farmers and land managers for sustainable farming practices under the new domestic agricultural policy.

Access to the pilots is not universal, however, and some pig farmers will not be be able to take part.

Details of the new scheme have been published today, and expressions of interest for the pilot will open from Monday, March 15.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive is the first of three schemes to be piloted and co-designed. Further information on the other two schemes, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery, will be shared later this year, Defra said.

The three schemes will reward farmers and land managers for producing public goods like biodiversity, cleaner water, cleaner air, improving soil, and carbon reduction on their land, helping the national effort to tackle climate change by reducing carbon emissions, the Department said.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive will support actions, such as improving soil health, managing hedgerows and integrated pest management. For example, a farmer might be paid to manage and plant hedgerows to provide year-round food, shelter and breeding cover for birds and insects, or take actions to boost the levels of organic matter in soils.

Defra said the pilot will build on the great success of the ongoing programme of tests and trials, which already involve over 3,000 farmers and other land managers and are focusing on trying out individual parts of the future scheme, like land management plans or different payment methods – whereas the pilot will test a working version of the scheme from start to finish.

The pilot

Farmers will need to complete a short, simple online form to submit expressions of interest in taking part in the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot.  Successful candidates will then be invited to complete their application and, if eligible, they will enter into a pilot  agreement starting from October 2021.

Defra said this initial stage will be open to several hundred farmers, reflecting England’s distribution of farm types and locations. Pilot participants will be asked to take part in a range of co-design activities, providing rapid feedback on their experience of all aspects of the process – from pre-application to implementing their agreements. This will ensure the scheme is fully workable and user-friendly once fully rolled out from 2024.

There will be eight standards farmers can choose to join in this first pilot:

  • Arable and horticultural land standard
  • arable and horticultural soils standard
  • improved grassland standard
  • improved grassland soils standard
  • low and no input grassland standard
  • hedgerow standard
  • on farm woodland standard
  • waterbody buffering standard.

The standards will promote cleaner air and water, and guard against environmental risks such as climate change and flooding. Within each standard there are three levels for participants to choose from – Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced.

The payment rates can be viewed on the scheme information page.

For the first phase of the pilot, payment rates for land management actions will be set at a broadly equivalent level to rates under Countryside Stewardship. This is a starting position only and updated payment rates for the launch of the scheme from 2022 are currently being developed, in consultation with farmers and representative groups.

roll-out-sustainable-farming-incentiveEligibility

But there are strict eligibility criteria for the first phase of the pilot that will exclude some pig producers, although the criteria will be widened when the scheme is rolled out more widely.

For example, farmers are only eligible if they receive Basic Payments Scheme payments and are registered on the Rural Payments Agency system , while land parcels can only be entered into the pilot that do not have an existing agri-environment agreement on them.

Farmers who participate in piloting will continue to receive their BPS payments while they are in pilot agreements. Defra said it would be possible for a farmer to be involved in piloting and be in a Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement – but not involving the same parcels of land.

The initial scheme is only open to BPS recipients until 2024, but after that, it will be open to all, NPA senior policy adviser Charlie Dewhirst said. “The NPA is working with Defra as it develops the various Environmental Land Management schemes to ensure that pig farmers can access them in future,” he added.

Defra Secretary George Eustice said:  “The ethos at the heart of our future policy is to support the choices of individual farm enterprises.

“The Sustainable Farming Incentive will support the environment and promote animal welfare. It will reward approaches to farm husbandry such as encouraging integrated pest management, improving soil health and enhancing hedgerows.

“Assets that were previously dubbed “ineligible features” will finally have their value recognised and rewarded. I would encourage farmers to engage in this pilot to help us design the new scheme.”

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.