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Take time when considering SFI options

Farmers with one of the original Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) arable or grassland soils standard agreements on their farm have been urged not to rush into any decisions ...

As the schemes are superseded by the 2023 version. The Rural Payments Agency, which administers the SFI, recently wrote to farmers confirming all existing soil standard SFI agreements would end by March 2024, with a cancellation payment made to agreement holders based on the length of time remaining on the agreement and standards committed to for the agreement term.

Farmers were given the option of either letting agreements run until this date, or terminate them before next March and go straight into the new 2023 SFI scheme, however Farmacy head of environmental services, Georgina Wallis, urged patience.

“Use the next few months to plan the new SFI scheme options carefully, rather than rushing straight into a new scheme, then wishing you’d done things differently in six months’ time,” she told attendees at a recent water quality event organised by Farmacy and sponsors Essex & Suffolk Water.

“Remember though, you must continue to meet the rules required by your existing scheme right up until it is actually terminated.”

Defra aims for 70% of farmers to be signed up to the SFI by 2025, so there is still a long way to go, Ms Wallis added. “The scheme needs to be flexible and work for farmers if people are going to sign up to it.

“But SFI 2023 is very different to previous schemes, with plenty of options available, so take time to fit the scheme around your farm and not the farm around the scheme. Try to pick up some of the simple options first, many of which you may already be doing, then build it up from there.”

Appraising options for the family farm

Ms Wallis was recently tasked to appraise SFI options for a 160 ha farm in eastern England. The farm grows combinable crops including winter wheat, winter oats, spring wheat and cover crops, on predominantly heavy land, using minimum tillage for the past 25 years.

“There are no existing stewardship agreements in place, and my task was to maximise the potential SFI income by taking as little land out of production as possible.”

After evaluating all 23 options available at the time, she decided the most appropriate for the farm to start with included the following:

  • SAM1 Assess soil, test soil organic matter and produce a soil management plan (£5.80/ha) – regular soil analysis, including organic mater, is already done every five years, and Omnia can be used to easily generate a soil management plan from existing information
  • SAM2 Multi-species winter cover crops (£129/ha) – cover crops are already grown ahead of spring cropping, so no extra work would be required
  • HRW2 Manage hedgerows (£10 per 100 m, one side) – with relatively small fields, the farm has around 7.5 km of hedgerows, which need to be managed appropriately
  • IPM1 Assess integrated pest management and produce a plan (£989/year) – much of this is already being done for Red Tractor assurance, therefore it is an obvious choice. There is caution about putting land into the ‘no insecticide’ option (IPM4), but there may be some land and crops where it might work in future
  • NUM1 Assess nutrient management and produce a review report (£589/year) – adopted across the whole farm and is relatively easy to do using Omnia for collating the required information and generating the report
  • AHL2 Winter bird food on arable and horticultural land (£732/ha) – 3 ha of land will be put into this, utilising land that was in an old Entry Level Stewardship scheme several years ago and has not been cropped since then
  • AHL4 4 m to 12 m grass buffer strip on arable and horticultural land (£451/ha) – necessary to protect watercourses adjacent to some fields
  • SFI management Payment (£20/ha up to first 50 ha) – a useful contribution towards the management and administration time required.

In total, she estimated income from the new SFI scheme would be around £13,000 a year for that particular farm. Although that was less than the lost Basic Payment, it would at least go some way to making up for the drop in income without removing any additional land from production or interfering with day-to-day activities.

“At the moment, the 23 options available are really just the tip of the iceberg; there are a lot more to come by 2025, covering things like precision agriculture, reduced tillage, woodland, heritage features, and agroforestry.

“But be organised. Look at the feasibility of the options available and plan exactly what you want and where it will go. Many of the options are more agronomy-led, so also consider what support you may need to help make them work for the farm, and also to manage them going forward.”


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