Changes to the Sustainable Farming Incentive for 2024 to include higher payments and new options such as support for precision farming

Steve Barclay was appointed Defra secretary in November 2023

Steve Barclay was appointed Defra secretary in November 2023

Image: Richard Townshend

The Defra Secretary Steve Barclay has announced what he claims is the biggest upgrade to the UK’s farming schemes since leaving the EU.

The updates, unveiled at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) on 4 June, include funding uplifts, streamlined application processes, enhanced environmental incentives and support for the roll out of new technology.

There will be a 10 per cent increase in the average value of agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship, driven by increased payment rates, with uplifts automatically applied to existing agreements.

Around 50 new actions have been announced that farmers can get paid for across all types of farm businesses, including actions for agroforestry and those driving forward agricultural technology such as robotic mechanical weeding.

In addition, there will be enhanced payments for ‘creation’ and ‘maintenance’ options – to improve the long-term incentives for farmers to create habitats and ensure they are rewarded for looking after habitats once they have created them.

And premium payments will be available for actions with the biggest environmental impact or combinations of actions that deliver benefits at scale, such as £765 per hectare for nesting plots for lapwing, and £1,242 per hectare for connecting river and floodplain habitat.

Speaking at the OFC, Defra secretary Steve Barclay said: “We have listened to farmers’ feedback and set out the biggest upgrades to our farming schemes since leaving the EU, with more money, more choice and more trust to support domestic food production whilst also protecting the environment.

“We’re also making it easier for farmers of every farm type and size to enter the schemes, and I encourage everyone to take a look at how you can join the thousands of other farmers and land managers who are already receiving our backing through the schemes.”

Farmers will be able to submit their applications for the 2024 offer from this summer, and the government promised that the timeline for agreements being offered will be accelerated to help farmers benefit from the changes earlier than in previous years.

The application process will also be simplified in 2024 by enabling farmers to apply for the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier through a single application.

According to Defra, around 8,000 farmers have applied to the Sustainable Farming Incentive 2023 and there has been a 94 per cent increase in Countryside Stewardship agreements since 2020.

This adds to the more than 50 Landscape Recovery projects to deliver large scale environmental benefits around the country.

The NFU has welcomed the new measures, saying they would provide further clarity for farming businesses in order to plan for the future.

However, NFU vice president David Exwood said the industry still had “more questions than answers” around the deliverability of the new options.

He added: “With a minimum of 50 per cent reduction in direct payments due in 2024, the tapering of payments to 2027 continues to be very concerning. We urgently need business critical detail on how farmers and growers will smoothly transition from existing agreements to the new offer.

“We repeat our calls for Defra to undertake a mid-term review – an urgent assessment is needed of the agricultural transition on food production and farm business viability. Currently, no such impact assessment exists, and it is something we have said is an absolute must to ensure these new schemes are set up to succeed.”

Country Land and Business Association president Victoria Vyvyan added that she was “very concerned” that farmers will have to wait until this summer, at the earliest, before the application window opens.

“This means that, at best, farmers will receive no SFI 24 income until the end of the year whilst facing remorseless cuts to the Basic Payment,” she said.

“We have significant concerns about the readiness of the Rural Payment Agency’s IT systems to deal with the new options and the streamlining of ELMs and Countryside Stewardship. There is real danger that the delivery will be held-up as it was in 2023, and that the application window will be pushed back.”

Meanwhile, Soil Association CEO Helen Browning said: “We want to see the budget for agroecological farming doubled, so today’s funding uplift is an important step forward for our farmers who are under huge pressures. We hope this will lead to more investment in sustainable farming, alongside support for farmers to enact whole farm plans for nature and move away from harmful practices.”

She added: “There is widespread agreement that we need a farmer-led tree revolution, so I am delighted to see vital funding coming through this year for agroforestry and wood pasture, alongside further support for farmers to create habitats.”