Growers "exasperated" by further changes to industry soil standard?


07 July 2023
Sustainable Farm Incentive updates welcomed by organic campaigners, but accountants believe removal of key elements will leave many growers out of pocket.

THE Sustainable Farming Incentive 2023 will start accepting applications from August, and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs says it will offer an improved, more streamlined process for farmers.

Defra’s development of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) 2023 will offer farmers additional actions and more flexibility to choose the actions they want to get paid for, the Government says.

The 2023 offer new actions on hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips, and low input grassland. Growers could be paid from £10 per 100m for managing one side of a hedgerow (plus a further £10 per 100m to maintain or establish hedgerow trees); £129 per hectare for multi-species cover crops; or £589 for a nutrient management review.

For tenant farmers, along with other improvements made in response to Baroness Rock’s review, there are shorter agreement lengths that do not require landlord consent.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said: "After listening to extensive feedback from farmers, we’ve done a huge amount to streamline and improve the Sustainable Farming Incentive, making it as simple and flexible as possible for farmers to engage with, apply for and embrace.

"We want farmers to be able to access a package that works best for them. The scheme will remain flexible to allow for the changing needs and requirements of both farmers and their markets to ensure the best outcomes for food production and the natural environment."

But Joe Spencer, Partner at UK accountancy group MHA, believes UK growers will be frustrated at the latest change to the soils standard which will leave most out of pocket and deprioritises industry environmental outputs.

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“Several news aspects of SFI 2023 have been welcomed by UK farmers however the industry will be disappointed that the removal of key elements from the 2022 standard will reduce its simplicity and make it much less attractive. Most arable units would have found it relatively easy to achieve the key lower level requirements to add organic matter, grow a single overwintered crop on part of the land and take steps to minimise bare land. These have now been removed from the 2023 standard," he said. 

“It leaves only a soil management plan with multi-species winter cover or herbal leys, both of which require farmers to either take land out of production or incur extra costs. Any of the stewardship options such as AB1-AB16 (Nectar mix, overwintered stubble, winter bird feed etc) can be brought within the standard, but these are not mandatory and were already available.

“The new concept has abandoned the progressive whole farm approach outlined in the 2021 pilot scheme. Where previously the scheme was lauded for boldly prioritising environmental outputs and bringing in areas of existing land which were previously unsubsidised due to high environmental value, it has been replaced by a diluted version of the existing stewardship schemes. 

“Farmers will also be frustrated that this represents the third version of key soil standard within two years and has been introduced before the 2021 pilot standard is even halfway through. DEFRA’s own statistics last October show that only 60% of farmers have even a rough idea of DEFRA’s vision for the industry, 6% lower than six months previously. I am not sure that changing a key scheme so rapidly convinces anyone that there is a consistent strategy in place.”

OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers), which has campaigned for agricultural policy to reflect the benefits that organic’s whole system approach delivers in producing food sustainably while improving the environment, has welcomed the developments to SFI.

OF&G chief executive Roger Kerr said: “We’re finally seeing some concrete progress and clarity within SFI that recognises the value of the public goods, many of which are consistently delivered by organic licensees. Considering the ambitions to reach net zero by 2050, organic offers an immediate and accessible pathway. The SFI gives farmers a robust platform from which to look forward and project how change, if handled in the right way, can deliver against the targets in the Environment Act and Environmental Improvement Plan.”

For more information about the latest SFI developments, click here.

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