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Farmers joining Defra's Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme are being advised to avoid unnecessary costs during the application process. Be wary of paying twice over for SFI applications

• 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 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 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 an agronomist who advises on the cropping or herbal ley establishment.

This means there is a risk farmers could pay once for the application process – and then face further charges from an adviser with the technical expertise required to complete the necessary actions, claims 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.

Agronomist-led

“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 obtain 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 can record and complete all the information needed to meet SFI soils standard requirements in a functional and easy way, says Mr Porter.

Nutrient plans

Users can generate a report summarising the information needed for compliance, he adds. It can also help with nutrient plans – and is continually updated to ensure it remains relevant as SFI requirements change.

“If farmers get onto this now, they will be well set up for when the next standards are launched in coming months.

“I truly believe that the SFI is the right way forward – it’s hugely beneficial to the environment and to the farmer.

“It 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 by improving farm productivity.

“Farmers have to engage with their agronomist to make sure everything is done properly,” says Mr Porter.

About the Sustainable Farming Incentive

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. They were the:
• arable and horticulture soils standard
• improved grassland soils standard
• moorland standard

Six new standards are being introduced in 2023. They are the:
• nutrient management standard
• integrated pest management standard
• hedgerows standard
• arable and horticultural land standard
• improved grassland standard
• low/no input grassland standard

Defra describes the SFI offer as wide-ranging, saying it will help the government achieve its goals for UK food production, the environment and climate change.

Farmers who already have an SFI agreement will be able to add these actions and more land to  existing agreements.

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.