Arable Insights farmers share how SFI fits into their businesses

How have our new group of Arable Insights farmers implemented SFI into their businesses, and what’s the latest in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

West Midlands: Rob Atkin, Staffordshire

Accepted on to a Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme in January, Rob Atkin is running it alongside an existing two-year-old Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme.

Options selected include management plans for soils (SAM1), integrated pest management (IPM1), nutrients (NUM1), growing companion crops (IPM3), not using insecticides (IPM4), and maintaining hedgerow trees (HRW3).

“We’re also doing a small area of multispecies winter cover (SAM2) and managing grassland with very low nutrient inputs (LIG1),” Rob says.

See also: 2023 SFI to regain lost third of BPS for Warwickshire grower

His Mid Tier agreement already covers the majority of the cover crops grown, plus some land taken out of production for areas of options, such as AB9 (winter bird food).

“We’re doing as much as we can without affecting our main farming policy of producing cereals,” Rob says.

The loss of 80% of his oilseed rape area to a combination of cabbage stem flea beetle, late drilling and weather is leading him to consider rotational options, such as legume fallows (NUM3) or herbal leys (SAM3), as a break crop replacement.

“This is the first year we’ve lost much oilseed rape and if you get it right the gross margin stacks up,” he says.

“But there’s starting to be too much risk and the legume options look like they could pay – especially as we’re in a livestock area – if we could sell the forage off when I’m allowed to harvest it or bale and store to sell.”

He is hopeful that could also work as a decent break to help control grassweeds, although he is conscious of experiences further east where in some cases AB15 legume fallows have proved to encourage blackgrass.

Having bought an Amazone Cayena tine direct drill using a Farming Equipment Technology Fund grant, he would like to add direct-drilling payments, but is unsure of what will be classified as acceptable for the no-till payment.

“And will we be allowed to create a stale seed-bed using a straw rake or going with a set of discs to 1.5cm depth, and still qualify?”

Any changes or additions to his scheme are likely to be on the anniversary rather than starting a second SFI agreement, he adds. “I need to keep it simple.”

Scotland: David Fuller-Shapcott, Kelso

Just 15 miles from the English border, David Fuller-Shapcott’s farm continues to receive 100% of its historic Basic Payment Scheme funding, but the detail about what is coming next is less clear.

“I think we’re likely to see a steeper decline in BPS than what farmers south of the border have faced,” he suggests.

The current proposal is a four-tier system, where in tier one farmers receive a low percentage of current BPS funds, while the other three tiers include additional payments for ever-increasing conditions.

“I think tier four might be where you have to do some level of SFI-type activity in order to get back close to what’s now a 100% BPS funding,” David says.

While he believes Scottish farmers probably have a slight advantage currently over English farmers because of the BPS-equivalent funding, the changes in England have had some repercussions.

“For instance, the capital grants have priced us out of the market for direct drills,” he says.

Only one capital grant programme has been opened by the Scottish government, he adds, in which the only useful item for arable farming was GPS equipment, which he had already bought.

“The truth is there aren’t any grants because the government doesn’t have a lot of money,” he claims.

The Scottish equivalent of Mid Tier, the AgriEnvironment and Climate Change Scheme (AECS), is also massively competitive. “It’s very difficult to get in.”

That is partly because once certain options are established, such as protecting all waterside margins with 3m or 6m boundaries, you can’t claim enough points next time around to get over the scheme’s threshold, he says.

“It leads to perverse outcomes where it is better to plough them up and start again once you’re out of the scheme, which is completely wrong. I hope the new schemes will address things like that.”

Who are the eight Arable Insights farmers?




Farm size


Tamara Hall

Beverley, Yorks


Northern Ireland

Neill Patterson

Downpatrick, County Down


West Midlands

Rob Atkin

Uttoxeter, Staffs



Tom Carr

Fareham, Hants


East Midlands

Heather Oldfield

Kirton Drove, Lincs



David Fuller-Shapcott

Kelso, Borders


South West

Dougal Hosford

Blandford, Dorset


East Anglia

Jack Smith

Haddenham, Cambs


Read more about each farm.

South West: Dougal Hosford, Dorset

Dougal Hosford found applying for SFI easy, albeit following assistance from a Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) adviser about suitable options, with his agreement starting last December.

“The first quarter payment has already been received, which is unheard of,” he says.

Many of the options fit with what is already happening on the farm – overwintered cover crops, companion cropping in oilseed rape, no insecticides, four management plans, including hedgerow assessments, and legumes on improved grassland (NUM2).

“And as soon as the direct drilling one comes in, we’ll do that on at least 75% of our area, up to 100% depending on the definition,” he says.

That will probably be added to the existing agreement rather than starting a new one because of the chances of multiple schemes becoming complicated.

With about 140ha of land already taken out of production for Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship, those types of options don’t feature much in Dougal’s current SFI agreement.

But he is looking at how he can replace AB15 legume fallows, as that option hasn’t worked very effectively on the farm.

Put around the field edges to stop brome ingress, it had the opposite effect, he notes.

“You can’t do anything but mow it, which hasn’t helped, and it’s not that helpful for the soil. I’d prefer to do an all-season cover crop.

“Herbal leys are a good option, but at £382/ha I don’t think it is enough to justify doing, once you take into account costs such as seed.”

Similarly, the current proposed payment of £153-163/ha for spring, summer or autumn cover crops isn’t viable, even added to an overwintered cover crop, he adds.

“It should be a minimum of £750/ha, although it depends on what you’re comparing it to.

“It’s a difficult one, but it is possibly such a big game-changer in terms of soil improvement in a regenerative system that it has to be worth that sort of money.”

South: Tom Carr, Hampshire

This summer is likely to be the earliest that Southwick Estate will apply to join a SFI scheme, Tom Carr says.

“We have some legacy Countryside Stewardship agreements on land which has come back to us from tenants, so we are waiting for those to phase out so we can have one estate-wide agreement, with the exception of one larger remaining CS agreement.”

The SFI payment rates in the latest iteration are also more attractive, he notes, with many of the options likely to be for grassland.

“Three-quarters of the farm is grassland, so there will be lots of herbal leys on permanent pasture, which pays well.

“For arable, I’m looking at legume fallows to replace oilseed rape in the rotation, as we might grow a wheat, barley, SFI rotation.”

It will help the estate’s aim to reduce reliance on outside contractors while making the business more resilient and profitable.

Tom does have some concerns that SFI is encouraging farms to move away from food production.

“It’s disappointing that growing food in this country is becoming the least profitable option,” he says.

“But as a business, why would we grow food when it doesn’t make as much money compared to not growing food?”

East Midlands: Heather Oldfield, Lincolnshire

Uncertainty about the economic viability of some SFI options on a high-yielding cereal farm on fenland, plus an area already in CS, led to Heather Oldfield initially waiting to apply for SFI.

“CS has helped us mitigate volatile markets, and we hope SFI will do the same,” she says.

“Our CS agreements are due to end in two years’ time, at which point we may switch these areas into SFI, depending on the marketplace, unless we are forced to make a change before.”

In the meantime, the farm is likely to apply for the insecticide-free option as it fits with the management approach, having been insecticide-free for more than five years.

Growing herbal leys (SAM3) is also being considered as it offers grazing for the farm’s cattle, potentially leading to reduced feed costs, Heather says.

“With current market prices I can see the appeal of SFI,” she adds. “But while we want to do our best for the environment, we shouldn’t lose sight of food security.”

She is also unsure whether SFI payments will track market prices in some way. “Most of the options were priced when markets were high, but now they are dropping will there be a revision on payments?” she asks.

Northern Ireland: Neill Patterson, County Down

A new sitting government in Northern Ireland after a two-year hiatus has renewed optimism that some clarity will be forthcoming on new agricultural policy in the coming months.

Historic BPS payments will be paid again this year, but there is no doubt it will be reduced in future, says Neill Patterson.

A Transitional Farm Sustainability Payment scheme is due to replace BPS, but there is no confirmation yet of how that scheme will run.

Neill has also applied to be one of 150 pilot farmers in the new Farming with Nature scheme. While detail is lacking, he thinks it will be similar to SFI in England.

“I hope in doing this pilot the right decisions are made,” he says.

Recent meetings Neill has attended, where policy makers were keen to listen to farmers’ views, have given him encouragement.

“It’s uplifting to see they want to listen to us and want to get it right.”

North: Tamara Hall, Yorkshire

After Molescroft Farm’s SFI 2022 agreement was cancelled by Defra, Tamara Hall is in the process of applying for the latest available SFI scheme. “The new version is much better, so we’re going to put more land in,” she says.

That includes some land that was in a ley for four years, where weather prevented drilling the intended winter wheat. “Instead, it’s going into a SFI legume fallow.”

Other options selected include no insecticide on all except the land growing peas and beans, and the various management plans.

She is also hoping to move some GS4 from a current Mid Tier agreement into SFI legume fallows, where cutting management is more suitable for reducing blackgrass populations.

“A lot of our farm is not ideal for arable cropping, with low-lying wet areas, so it fits the farmland and the way we want to farm,” she says.

With diversifications including dog walking fields and a children’s nursery proving profitable, Tamara is also taking the opportunity to use Mid Tier and SFI to help fund improvements in the farm’s soils through cover crops and no tillage.

A second SFI agreement may follow, with hedgerow and possibly no-till options, later in the year, but Tamara was keen for the first application to be made by the end of February to avoid missing out on payments for any longer.

East Anglia: Jack Smith, Cambridgeshire

The philosophy Jack Smith has taken into his SFI agreement, made in December, is to apply for options that are already being done on the farm or will fit easily alongside current practices.

“If we’re having to significantly change management practices from what we want to do, then it becomes riskier,” he says.

Options that fitted include the various management plans and the no insecticide option for some late-drilled wheat and spring barley crops, where the flexibility to reduce areas by 50% next year means he won’t be hamstrung with following rotations.

He’s also included some NUM3 legume fallow as a viable break crop option on some heavier land where there are limited break crop options.

The new variable-rate application of nutrients option is one he is contemplating for next year.

“We’ve got the technology to do it,” he says. “We already do variable-rate base fertiliser on potatoes, and plan to start dabbling again in variable-rate nitrogen this year to help manage some variable backward crops.”

He says he won’t sign up wholesale for this in year one, but thinks it is worth having another look as the technology has improved, and the returns might be more worthwhile than 10 years ago, particularly with some additional SFI funds.

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