Expanded Sustainable Farming Incentive offer published

Full details of the expanded and improved Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) offer available to farmers from July was published by the government on Tuesday.

The expanded SFI offer will be open to new entrants for the first time and will initially comprise 102 actions, designed in collaboration with the agricultural sector, including over 20 new options to support more sustainable food production – with payments for precision farming, agroforestry, a new and expanded offer for upland farmers and more actions for tenants on short-term contracts. The new actions will help farmers to reduce input costs and boost yields.

In addition, further new actions will support flood preparedness, helping businesses to become more resilient to the changing climate and challenging weather conditions.

The SFI is intended for all farmers, including tenant and upland farmers.

More than 50 simplified actions from Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier will be merged into SFI to streamline the application process for farmers. They include a number of actions where durations have been reduced from 5 to 3 years to align with the needs of tenant farmers. In addition to the expanded offer, the government has also launched a new digital tool known as ‘Find funding for land or farms’ to signpost customers toward the funding that is available to them.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said, “I recognise that farmers have had to deal with difficult circumstances this year, which is why we have delivered on our commitment to provide further detail on the expanded SFI offer ahead of applications opening in July. The new expanded SFI offer gives farmers more choice, makes things easier and pays out more, so they can get on with the important job of producing high quality food in a sustainable way.”

NFU Deputy President David Exwood welcomed the announcement. He said, “We have always said that the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) must provide incentives to support food production alongside improving the environment, so it’s encouraging that the new offer appears to be improved, broader and more flexible – changes that the NFU has been asking for.”

It has also been confirmed that the application window for CS Higher Tier, which provides grants to help farmers protect, restore or enhance the environment, will open in the winter, with agreements starting in January 2025. Defra says it has been improving the offer, making it simpler and reducing the burden of seeking advice and endorsement.

Exwood said, “Farmers and growers will need to take a close look at the latest developments provided by Defra and consider how these can be applied on farm. They include a hugely expanded SFI offer from 23 to 102 actions following a merger of SFI with CS Mid Tier, with a new improved moorland offer. This recognises the role hill farmers play in producing our food and looking after some of our most challenging and iconic farming landscapes.

“Details of the new CS Higher Tier scheme including eligibility, actions available and how to apply, will not be published until later this year with the aim of farmers and growers being able to start agreements in 2025. We urge Defra to supply these details as soon as possible to help those ending agreements or anyone wanting to transfer across from Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).

“It is important now that Defra and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) ensure that all these schemes have the resources needed to make delivery a success, with clear timelines for the application processes which will provide further clarity and allow our members to put together comprehensive agreements needed for their farming businesses.

“All farming sectors are feeling the squeeze following the cumulative loss of direct payments over the past four years and the slow transition to the ELM scheme. As we set out in our election manifesto, it’s vital the next government looks at the agricultural budget to ensure the UK farming sector is resilient and thriving, so our farmers and growers can continue doing what they do best; contributing to our national food security by producing sustainable, climate-friendly food alongside protecting and enhancing our precious environment.”

Alice Groom, Head of Sustainable Land Use Policy at RSPB England, urged government to ensure progress on the new higher tier payments, “Today’s launch of the new SFI offer is an important milestone in England’s agricultural transition. Whilst an expanded SFI offer is welcome, we are very concerned that timelines are slipping to get the new higher tier offer launched. This risks leaving farmers doing the most for nature at the back of the queue and insufficient progress on the actions that can make the most impact for nature’s recovery.”

Further information
The SFI scheme pays farmers to adopt and maintain sustainable farming practices that:

  • Recognise the importance of food production
  • Protect and enhance the natural environment and support farm productivity and resilience

It does this while giving participants maximum flexibility as to how they achieve action objectives and taking an ‘advise and prevent’ approach to regulation and inspection that offers farmers help and support rather than penalising them for mistakes.

From July, farmers and land managers will be able to access options currently available in Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier (CS MT), actions from the SFI offer, plus new actions announced at the Oxford Farming Conference all through one scheme – which to keep it simple will be called the Sustainable Farming Incentive.

Bringing the schemes into one place, with one name, means farmers can access the best of both offers, the flexibility of the SFI with the breadth, scale and ambition of CS MT, just with less paperwork.

CS Higher Tier
This summer, Defra will publish CS Higher Tier information setting out who is eligible, how to apply and request specialist advice for Higher Tier actions alongside details of each Higher Tier action available to apply for.

If farmers are eligible to apply for CS Higher Tier actions, they will need specialist advice before they start their application, which they will normally get through Natural England or Forestry Commission. They may need additional advice from Historic England or the Environment Agency, depending on the actions they want to do.

Later this summer, farmers will be able to start working with Natural England or Forestry Commission to prepare an application. This includes any feasibility studies or plans they may need to complete.

Eligible farmers will be able to submit your online application for CS Higher Tier in the Rural Payments service this winter, with the first agreements starting from early 2025. Applications will then stay open throughout the year, so you can choose when to apply. Agreements will normally start the month after your application is approved.

Controlled Roll Out
Expressions of interest have now opened for those wishing to apply through the controlled roll out, ahead of the offer being fully self service in July.

The RPA will invite a mix of customers into the controlled roll out at the end of this month to fully test the service and gather representative feedback.

If you would like to be one of the first farmers to access the expanded SFI offer, you can complete a short expression of interest on the RPA website.

Defra will then choose a select number of individuals to test the service and submit an application before it opens the new offer to the wider sector.

Applications will open to the wider sector, based on eligibility, on 22 July.

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