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Plans to pay farmers more for looking after the environment have been welcomed – amid warnings that early adopters must not be unfairly penalised. Revamped SFI scheme is more attractive to farmers

• More options and easier to join

• Streamlined application process

• Early adopters mustn’t lose out

Plans to pay farmers more for looking after the environment have been welcomed – amid warnings that early adopters must not be unfairly penalised.

Improvements to Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) mean farmers who sign up to the scheme this year will have more options to choose from than farmers who joined last year – and more opportunity to boost their income.

Some 23 options on offer cover existing themes including soil health and moorland – as well as new actions on hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips and low input grassland.

It means farmers could be paid  £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.

Flexible

Farm 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.”

“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 farmers and their markets to ensure the best outcomes for food production and the environment.”

The government has also confirmed the SFI management payment will be applied to all land-based SFI actions, including moorland, and has updated the payment rate for low input grassland action to make the rates the same for upland and lowland areas.

For tenant farmers, there are shorter agreement lengths that do not require landlord consent. This makes payments more accessible to those on short-term agreements, and includes a range of new actions not previously available in schemes.

The 2023 scheme will open to applications from August. Defra says it will contact the 3000 or so farmers who joined the SFI in 2022 to explain how they can access the payments, benefits and improvements in the 2023 offer.

Transition

NFU vice president David Exwood praised the improvements. But he added: “Given their early commitment and the lessons learned, these farmers must be treated fairly and rewarded during the transition, should they wish to take up a SFI23 agreement.

“Defra has to get this right. If SFI and the wider Environmental Land Management scheme is to be successful, it needs to be simple, flexible and provide certainty so there’s widespread uptake.”

Country Land and Business Association president Mark Tufnell said the changes showed Defra was committed to responding to feedback from farmers, helping to ensure the scheme works for as many businesses as possible.

But he said it was a pity that the transition process could not have been smoother for early adopters. He added: “We will press Defra and the Rural Payments Agency to ensure further procedural improvements are made where necessary.”