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Can Defra’s new schemes that aim to ‘save the planet’ really help farmers rebound?

Produce Business report

UK farmers who have been battered by a range of challenges that include labour shortages and rising costs will be getting at least some relief from the government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) plan, according to Defra.

Defra announced on Thursday it will offer farms up to £1,000 extra in grants provided they can be both environmentally friendly and produce sustainable food. A new Sustainable Farming Incentive can reward farmers and those interested in the business with a £20-per-hectare payment made for the first 50 hectares of farm to cover administrative and other business costs. The hope is that more small farmers will sign on.

“These increased payments recognise the challenges of rising input costs and other pressures which are being felt across the sector,” Farming Minister Mark Spencer said during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference. “The SFI Management Payment will help to drive uptake in the scheme among all farmers, including smaller farms who are currently under-represented in environmental schemes. SFI has been designed with tenant farmers firmly in mind, and is more accessible to them thanks to shorter, three-year agreements and allowing tenants on shorter contracts to enter into the scheme without the need for landlord consent.”

Defra also said those who carry a Countryside Stewardship agreement would see “an average increase of 10% to their revenue payment rates – covering ongoing activity such as habitat management.”

The goal in all of it is to get the UK on the right path to hitting projected environmental targets, including: to prevent the declines in forestry, farms, good insects and other food sources; to reach carbon net zero by 2050; and to drive innovation in agriculture. One of the barriers to getting there had been the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, which heavily rewarded the biggest and most productive farms. The government says the new plan is “fairer.”

“I want us to be free of the damaging legacy of the bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy for good, learn from the past and focus on helping you build and maintain profitable, resilient businesses that produces the food we need and enhances the natural environment at the same time,” Spencer said. “Everyone has a role to play. And – this is important – we want it to be simple and straightforward for you to succeed. So, I urge you to get involved with the initial phase of the Sustainable Farming Incentive.”

Defra said there are two other major pieces of the plan:

  • It is updating capital payment rates, which cover one-off projects such as hedgerow creation, with an average increase of 48%.
  • Capital and annual maintenance payments for the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) and Tree Health Pilot (THP) will also be updated this year, giving farmers a chance to incorporate more trees as a valuable natural resource on farms.

“Taken together, these changes will mean more farmers taking individual positive actions such as creating hedgerows and flower-rich grass areas on the edge of fields and will support farmers and landowners in making space for nature alongside sustainable food production,” Spencer said. “This will help us meet the UK’s legally binding environment targets and contribute to our aim of halting biodiversity loss by 2030, agreed at COP15 in December last year, while supporting the industry to farm more home-grown produce and take advantage of innovation.”

Farmers across the UK need help. Spencer noted the myriad obstacles facing them, including supply chain disruptions, inflation, pests and weather, not to mention labour. He said he and his colleagues have been trying to find solutions.

“[We’ve been working] to make sure farmers benefit from a range of measures from across the whole government: increasing the Employment Allowance, cutting fuel duty, taking action on business rates, and this month, through the Energy Relief Scheme you can apply for extra help if your household does not have a direct relationship to a domestic energy supplier,” he said. “Just before Christmas, we made an initial 45,000 visas available for seasonal workers to travel to the UK for up to six months – that’s 15,000 more than this time last year, with the possibility of an extra 10,000 more, if we can show that they’re required and needed.”

But National Farmers Union Vice President David Exwood warned that all of it, including the SFI, might be “too little, too late”.

“It is hugely frustrating that nearly five years on from Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, we still only have three standards available for the SFI,” Exwood said. “It’s a sad reflection of the scheme’s progress and development that NFU members know more about what they will lose in direct payments than what they will gain from taking part in these new schemes.”

So what will it take for Defra’s new plan to work?

“It needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part,” he said. ““This means schemes that are inclusive and available to every farm business – whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied – with a range of practical and profitable options available through a ‘foundation’ SFI standard to ensure the high uptake needed so these schemes have the desired impact. Ministers must also demonstrate transparently how direct payments have been redirected to the ELM programme.”

Outlining his goals and admitting the need for change, Spencer spoke about the future and hopes of the schemes.

“All the evidence we have, as well as plain common sense, tells us that making the shift towards a more sustainable, resilient food system is critical to fundamentally improving the lives of people across our country and around the world, so we make sure every generation has a better future as well,” Spencer said. “So in other words, we’ve got to keep everyone fed and save the planet.”



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