The news was announced by UK farming minister Mark Spencer on January 6, 2023 at the Oxford Farming Conference.
Farmers who are part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme can get up to £1,000 (US$1,200) per year, or £20/ha (US$24) up to 50 hectares of land. This will be paid on top of existing rates offered for ‘nature-friendly action’ undertaken on farm. Payments will be backdated to the start of an SFI agreement.
The payment has been designed to boost participation and attract smaller businesses, particularly tenant farmers, who are under-represented in the scheme.
Meanwhile, farmers with a Countryside Stewardship agreement will see an average increase of 10% to their revenue payment rates, according to the minister. The scheme covers a range of activities including habitat management.
Defra is also updating the capital payment rates, designed to cover one-off projects, by an average of 48%. Applications for these grants are open until January 25, 2023.
'Too little, too late'
The minister would hope that the changes announced today would go some way towards appeasing farmers who had previously called the payment rates ‘woefully low’. Whether an extra £20/ha would be enough to entice more participants into SFI remains to be seen, but action had to be taken after it was revealed last November that there were around 2,500 SFI applications that had been started but not completed, and only around 1,100 approvals from a total of about 1,500 since July 2022 (see our report from November 28, 2022 for more details).
Attracting more tenant farmers into the SFI fold would also be key for the scheme’s perceived success. The government says SFI has been designed ‘firmly’ with tenant farmers in mind thanks to shorter, three-year agreements and by allowing tenants to enter into the scheme without landlord consent.
The continued lack of an expanded set of standards would be more frustrating, however. While Spencer has promised that this information is coming ‘soon’, it won't be the first time that the deadline is pushed back.
The National Farmers Union vice-president David Exwood called the lack of clarity ‘hugely frustrating’, warning that the government ‘risks being too little, too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing and the rapid erosion of direct payments’.
“It is hugely frustrating that nearly five years on from Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, we still only have three standards available for the SFI,” Exwood said. “It’s a sad reflection of the scheme’s progress and development that NFU members know more about what they will lose in direct payments than what they will gain from taking part in these new schemes.”
There is however a published list of the new payment rates under the Countryside Stewardship scheme for England, which the government says have gone up by an average of 10%. The list can be found via the gov.uk website.