Editor’s view: No longer possible to say ELM is a mystery

At last, more information on what Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will look like for farmers in England.

This week’s announcement of six additional standards marks a major expansion in its scope.

It includes three modules that have apparently been brought forward from 2024 as the department responds to criticism that the sloth-like pace at which it was rolling out the scheme was putting off potential applicants from participating.

See also: Editor’s view: Council meddling exposes farm to crime threat

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desks. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
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The introduction of more choice is welcome, and at first glance payment rates for some actions are high enough to tempt some critics to take a second look.

Applications will open this summer for the new standards, and initial application times of as little as 45 minutes are promised. 

It now seems the right moment to call time on one of the most persistent criticisms of the scheme – that farmers don’t know enough about its direction to know whether to participate.

As Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, noted at the Oxford Farming Conference, the fundamentals have actually been clear for some time.

The business of farming will not be financially supported once the Basic Payment Scheme is wound down by 2028.

The purpose of the SFI and the broader Environmental Land Management scheme within which it sits is to purchase changes in behaviour that yield environmental benefits.

This week’s expansion simply marks a broadening in the type and style of land they are willing to purchase change upon.

It will reimburse farmers for the cost of taking a wider range of actions and the income foregone in doing so.

Further work is to be done this summer to look at whether there can be an additional financial reward for delivering good outcomes.

Those who worry that it is going to cause some farmers to go out of business are missing the point.

Rightly or wrongly, keeping farmers in business is not one of its objectives. That is a decision the Conservative Party must take responsibility for.

Making a scheme that works within the objectives set out is the responsibility of Defra, and both politicians and the department must take responsibility for that.

But even the harshest critics of the scheme should judge it on what it is intended to do, rather than what many farmers would like it to do.

If this and future governments are to deliver the ambitious targets for reaching net zero, increasing tree planting and improving biodiversity, this scheme must pay enough and have a good enough reputation to encourage mass participation.

So what does all this add up to? I think it means the government needs us more than we need it.

More now will hopefully find that there are parcels of land where some of these schemes can be implemented – particularly in areas where food or fibre production is loss-making.

For farmers, it will be optional. For the government, it will be essential. It has set itself a legally binding target to buy these changes.

But as this is still a free country, you are not obliged to sell unless it is worth your while.

The government may be drawing a lot of helpful subsidy from the sector, but it still feels to me as if we’re in the driving seat.

I hope those in other parts of the UK are watching with interest. Based on what we know so far, your journey may be slower, but the destination is going to end up being quite similar.

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