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Farmers will be able to earn up to £70/ha to improve the health of their soil under the government's forthcoming Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).... Farmers to be paid up to £70/ha for healthier soils

Farmers will be able to earn up to £70/ha to improve the health of their soil under the government’s forthcoming Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).

Defra secretary George Eustice confirmed the payment rate following a speech at last month’s Cereals event. Farmers would receive £21-70/ha depending on the measures they undertake, he told reporters at Boothby Graffoe, Lincolnshire.

Mr Eustice said: “Soil health is the key to delivering our targets on the environment and improving farm profitability. Well managed soils can lead to increased biodiversity, improved water quality and reduced carbon emissions.”

The SFI is due to open next year following a pilot version this autumn. Mr Eustice said it would eventually be open to all farmers in England – encouraging more sustainable soil and grassland management.

Forming the entry-level tier part of the forthcoming Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, the SFI will include actions to improve soil health and water quality, enhance hedgerows and promote integrated pest management.

Defra says the SFI will include three different soil health standards: one on arable and horticultural soil, one on improved grassland soil, a third on moorland and rough grazing. More modules will be added later.

Green fertilisers

Mr Eustice said: “I’m also interested in whether we can do more to incentivise the use of green fertilisers, whether there can be more on min and no-till systems and also whether more can be done on companion crops.”

The ELM scheme is being phased in as the basic payment scheme is phased out. Mr Eustice said he had always been clear that the quid pro quo for moving away from the BPS was to reward farmers properly for looking after the environment.

“We need to start to have payment rates attached to the Sustainable Farming Incentive that better reflect the cost associated with those options which are set at a rate which genuinely creates an incentive for farmers to take part.”

The SFI would also help to accelerate the widespread adoption of more sustainable approaches to agriculture. These include enhancing the natural environment, reducing carbon emissions, and improving animal health and welfare.

Mr Eustice said: “We’re starting with soils because farmers understand the importance of their soils and soils health. If they get these things right it will improve their profitability.”

Defra says it is designing the scheme to attract the widest possible range of farmers. It hopes at least 70% of eligible farms will take part by 2028. More than 2000 farmers have already expressed an interest in joining the pilot..

Some standards – schemes within the SFI – will be made available from next year alongside existing schemes like Countryside Stewardship. It will see more farmers rewarded for bringing land into environmental management.

Scheme payment principles

The Sustainable Farming Incentive will be rolled out next spring – following a pilot version due to get under way this autumn.

It will form the entry-level tier of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Two further tiers will include local nature recovery projects to boost biodiversity and broader interventions such as landscape recovery initiatives.

The government has committed to maintain farm support at its current level of £2.4bn per year for the duration of this parliament. By 2028, it says spending will be split evenly across the three ELM tiers.

Defra has now published four guiding principles setting out the approach to environmental scheme payments. It says payment rates will be set to encourage wide participation – fairly and effectively paying farmers for achieving these outcomes.

The principles are that:

• Payments should provide good value for money and achieve ambitious environment and climate change outcomes. 

• Payments should, as far as possible, pay for environmental outcomes by recognising and rewarding the full range of activities that achieve environmental and climate outcomes

• Payments should recognise the value of existing natural assets and do not unfairly disadvantage those who are already achieving good environmental and climate outcomes

• Payments should form part of a market for environmental outcomes where scheme participants can earn income from public and private sector sources

Information on how and what will be paid through each scheme will be shared when each of the schemes is launched.