Defra to fast-track SFI 2023 payments before year end

Defra has announced plans to make earlier payments to farmers in England who enter its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) this year after the launch of the new scheme was pushed back into September.

The 2023 SFI scheme will open for applications online on Monday 18 September in a “controlled rollout” involving only a few farmers. Once the scheme is successfully up and running it will be opened more widely.

This year’s scheme has 23 actions on offer for farmers, covering existing themes such as soil health and moorland, and introducing new actions on hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips, and low-input grassland.

See also: Further delays to SFI 2023 launch leave farmers in limbo

In recognition of the challenges faced with the difficult harvest, inflation and rising input costs, Defra confirmed on Back British Farming Day (Wednesday 13 September) that farmers who have a live 2023 SFI agreement before the end of the year will receive an accelerated payment in the first month of their agreement, helping with cashflow and ensuring the SFI works for farm businesses.

Payments will be worth 25% of the expected full amount, Defra secretary Therese Coffey said.

The NFU, Country Land and Business Association and Tenant Farmers Association all welcomed the announcement of accelerated payments.

But NFU president Minette Batters said the government must go further and halt any further reductions in Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments while delays to its post-Brexit agri-environment schemes are resolved.

“The advanced SFI payment is great news for the minority, but for the majority, they still face enormous cash flow issues,” said Mrs Batters.

The NFU leader is pushing Ms Coffey not to make further BPS payment reductions in December for those farmers who cannot access the SFI, or don’t feel ready to yet.

“Whether that can happen or not is another matter, but she [Therese Coffey] is actively listening to us,” Mrs Batters said. “We have got Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on exactly what they were before. In England 35-50% of BPS payments have been capped and we’ve got to have a fair transition.”

CLA reaction

CLA president Mark Tufnell said: “This meaningful package of support will provide further reassurance to farmers concerned about their cashflow, and will give confidence that the Sustainable Farming Incentive is worth entering into.

“The CLA continues to engage robustly but constructively with Defra in pursuit of environmental schemes that work for farm businesses, food security and the environment.”

Defra announced last month that the launch of the 2023 SFI would be delayed to September after senior civil servants had made repeated promises it would launch in August. It is understood that problems with the IT systems that is used to manage the scheme were to blame for the delay.

Serious challenges have been mounting with significant delays to the start of the SFI, which should have been up and running to deliver payments by December. At the same time, farmers are facing ongoing reductions to BPS payments, with the annual pot being reduced by £720m so far.

Further Defra announcements on Back British Farming Day

Small Abattoir Fund A £4m Small Abattoir Fund – opening by the end of 2023 – aims to improve productivity, enhance animal health and welfare, and encourage investment in new technologies. The fund will be open to red meat and poultry businesses with an annual throughput of up to 10,000 livestock units, including beef, pork and lamb, and/or 500,000 birds a year. 

Promoting British produce Following its commitment at the Farm to Fork Summit, Defra has launched a recruitment drive to appoint five extra agri-food attachés to boost the UK’s agri-food exports, bringing the total number of dedicated UK agri-food attachés to 16. They will cover northern Europe, southern Europe, Australia/New Zealand, South Korea and Africa.

Investing in technology Farmers will be able to bid for up to £100,000 from a pot of £15m to install rooftop solar equipment when the second round of the Improving Farm Productivity Grant opens later this year. This will run alongside a further £15m on offer to farmers to invest in automation and robotics.

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