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Farmers will find it easier to secure funding from Defra’s revised Sustainable Farming Incentive – but three soil standard options have been dropped. Revamped SFI scheme aims to improve soil health

• Flexible Sustainable Farming Incentive

• Open for applications from this month

• Defra wants to encourage more farmers

Farmers will find it easier to secure funding from Defra’s revised Sustainable Farming Incentive – but three soil standard options have been dropped.

One of three components of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the SFI pays farmers to adopt and maintain sustainable farming practices which protect and improve the environment.

Revised scheme

Defra recently revised the scheme to attract more farmers. The 2023 SFI is expected to open for applications this month. The older 2022 SFI has been closed and with farmers given the option to join the new scheme.

Commenting on the changes, Savills farm consultant Matt Riddington (pictured)  said: “One of the most important changes to the SFI is the structure itself.

“The 2022 SFI employed ‘standards’ – introductory and intermediate levels – which resulted in differing rates of pay. However, the 2023 SFI moves away from the ‘stacking’ idea of standards and instead adopts a ‘pick and mix’ system.”

The 2023 SFI comprises 23 actions which look very similar to the well-known structure of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. The revised structure is more flexible, especially where basic options can be layered alongside other schemes.

“Pick and mix options can be added where the generation of further income is required, which means the new system can be more tailored and accommodating of individual farm needs,” says Mr Riddington.

“Overall, these latest changes will provide a profitable alternative on farmland areas where food production is no longer viable, whilst on productive land the incentive offers a supplementary income which encourages sustainable food production.”

Different options

Under the new SFI system, each action group has been split into three independent elements: plans, plots and prescriptions.

The ‘plans’  tier largely mirrors standard compliance under a typical Red Tractor farm assurance agreement. These  actions intend to build upon existing regulations and go beyond the regulatory legal minimum or baseline across the country.

They will be paid at a fixed rate – either per year or per agreement – and will apply to the whole holding.

The ‘plots’ option will mirror CSS options for environmental crops – including pollen and nectar flower mixes and buffer strips. This aims to mitigate the loss of the basic payment scheme which has removed an incentive to leave field headlands for nature.

The ‘prescriptions’ option provides an opportunity to modify crop growing techniques on a rotational basis in order to enhance environmental benefits – such as intercropping, no-till and cover crops.

Soil health

This will be accessible through integrated pest management, nutrient management and arable break cropping – all regenerative farming techniques which can help encourage better soil health.

Further changes to the original SFI scheme include an option for single entity SFI applications for common land and shared grazing agreements. Similarly, tenant farmers will be able to enrol in shorter agreements which do not require landlord consent.

Three options from the SFI 2022 soil standards have been dropped. The removed options are: adding organic matter, single species winter cover and minimising bare ground.

Actions to improve soil health

The SFI actions for soils are focused on improving soil health, soil structure, organic matter and biology.

SAM1: Assess soil, produce a soil management plan and test soil organic matter (£5.80/ha and £95 per SFI agreement per year)
This action aims to ensure farmers understand the condition of their soil and effectively plan how to increase the long-term health, productivity and resilience of soil

SAM2: Multi-species winter cover crops (£129/ha per year)
This action aims to ensure a well-established multi-species cover crop over the winter months. The purpose is to protect the soil surface, provide root growth that benefits soil structure, support soil biology and minimise leaching, soil erosion and runoff.

SAM3: Herbal leys (£382/ha per year)
This action aims to provide varied root structures. This purpose of this is to help improve and maintain the soil’s structure, carbon, biology and fertility.

Defra says these actions can help with the long-term productivity and resilience of the soil to benefit food production. They can also provide environmental benefits, such as better water quality, improved climate resilience and increased biodiversity.