Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
The government's revamped Sustainable Farming Incentive is easier to fit around some farming activities – but less lucrative in some situations. Revised SFI ‘worth studying in detail’

• Scheme options more flexible

• Some options not as lucrative

• Goal to increase applications

The government’s revamped Sustainable Farming Incentive is easier to fit around some farming activities – but less lucrative in some situations.

Changes to the SFI for 2023 were unveiled by the government earlier this year. Defra said it wanted to encourage more growers and livestock producers to join the scheme, which was originally launched last year.

Payment rates for 2023 SFI actions largely mirror those of the equivalent Countryside Stewardship options – but deciding which scheme to opt for will depend on individual farm circumstances, says farm consultant Chloe Timberlake, of Ceres Rural.

“The similarities between the schemes make it hard to choose, but the SFI nudges ahead on flexibility,” she says. “One of the biggest criticisms of mid-tier stewardship has always been that the agreements are fixed for five years, with no way of changing them.

“That’s very different with the SFI. You can add in actions each year, make alterations and vary the area of rotational actions by 50% in the second year – if need be.”

Rolling applications

A rolling application window means that SFI agreements can start at any time of the year, while mid-tier Countryside Stewardship has a fixed application deadline. This flexibility will appeal to many farmers.

New actions exclusive to SFI include payments for soil testing (£5.80/ha and £95/agreement); the production of a nutrient management plan £589/year); and the production of an integrated pest management plan (£989/year).

Other payments include companion cropping (£55/ha); and no use of insecticide (£45/ha). There is also a welcome return of the grassy field corners and blocks action, AHL3, which pays £590/ha, as well as two new hedgerow actions.

Restrictions on their management attached to some Countryside Stewardship options have been removed with parallel SFI actions. These include cutting dates, supplementary feeding and rest periods, and minimum and maximum areas.

Fewer restrictions

Good examples of this include herbal leys and rotational legume fallows, known as GS4 and AB15 in Countryside Stewardship. In the SFI, herbal leys are called SAM3, but there is no written requirement to rest them and fertiliser can be applied.

Similarly, AB15 is called NUM3 in the SFI – but it becomes a static option which must be maintained at the same area each year of the SFI agreement.

“If there’s a need to control blackgrass, you can cut it with less restriction,” says Ms Timberlake.

“Within mid-tier, topping to control black-grass is only allowed between defined dates within the first and second years.”

Meanwhile, farms with grazing livestock that have low input grassland will welcome that supplementary feeding is allowed in the SFI, with the action LIG1, which pays the same rate as GS2 at £151/ha.

Flower-rich margins and blocks – known as IPM2 in the SFI – have become rotational, giving a choice between relocating or maintaining them, whereas the equivalent AB8 in stewardship is non-rotational.

“Grassy field corners and blocks in SFI, AHL3, is a good action for delivering environmental gain and requires little management,” says Ms Timberlake.

Stewardship advantage

But mid-tier stewardship has an advantage when it comes to higher value environmental habitats, such as those on the priority habitats inventory. GS9 and GS10 – wet grassland management for waders and wildfowl – are woth £353/ha and £217/ha.

“The nearest equivalent in SFI would be LIG1 at £151/ha, which would not give the same level of environmental protection.”

In addition, popular options such as AB6 (enhanced over-winter stubbles); AB14 (supplementary winter feeding for birds); and AB12 (low input cereal) remain available in Countryside Stewardship, but are absent from the SFI.

Otherwise, if historic features are present on the farm, the revenue options HS2 and HS3 only exist in Countryside Stewardship, paying £476/ha if taken out of cultivation and £92/ha for reduced depth cultivations.

Where existing stewardship agreements are already in place, the decision on introducing the SFI is different. Farmers should also remember that the SFI is still in its infancy, cautions Ms Timberlake.

“There’s probably still an SFI scheme suitable which will bring in some additional income, although cherry-picking from both will involve two agreements of different lengths, which will add to the paperwork burden.”

“We can’t rule out further changes – recent events have confirmed that Defra is learning from feedback and some things remain fluid.”