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The much-maligned replacement for EU subsidies will now pay farmers for 102 sustainability-led actions

Defra has announced the expansion of an “improved” Sustainable Farming Incentive, which now contains 102 sustainability-led actions farmers can be paid for.

The much-maligned SFI – part of the government’s Environmental Land Management Schemes, which replace EU farm subsidies – will also be open to new entrants for the first time and includes more than 20 new options to support more sustainable food production.

Payments will now be made to farmers for actions including precision farming and agroforestry, while there is also a new and expanded offer for upland farmers and more actions for tenants on short-term contracts.

In addition, further new actions would support flood preparedness, “helping businesses to become more resilient to the changing climate and challenging weather conditions”, Defra said, in one of its last policy announcements before prime minister Rishi Sunak called a general election, for 4 July, on Wednesday

Defra added the new actions would help farmers to reduce input costs and boost yields. Applications for the scheme will open in July.

“The new expanded SFI offer gives farmers more choice, makes things easier and pays out more, so they can get on with the important job of producing high quality food in a sustainable way,” said farming minister Mark Spencer.

The NFU described the SFI’s update and its broader and more flexible scope as “encouraging”.

Read more: What our industry is demanding from a general election

“All farming sectors are feeling the squeeze following the cumulative loss of direct payments over the past four years and the slow transition to ELMS,” said NFU deputy president David Exwood.

“As we set out in our election manifesto, it’s vital the next government looks at the agricultural budget to ensure the UK farming sector is resilient and thriving, so our farmers and growers can continue doing what they do best; contributing to our national food security by producing sustainable, climate-friendly food alongside protecting and enhancing our precious environment.”

It comes as the Welsh Government last week confirmed the rollout of its own equivalent of the SFI, the Sustainable Farming Scheme, will be postponed by a year to 2026.

The scheme and its proposal requiring farmers to commit 10% of agricultural land for tree planting and a further 10% for wildlife habitats had led to a series of protests across Wales earlier this year.

“The SFS must provide farmers with the right level of support to help with business resilience,” said rural affairs secretary Huw Irranca-Davies.

The “pragmatic” move was welcomed by NFU Cymru, as was Irranca-Davies’ commitment to “meaningful engagement” on the issue.

“This is a scheme that will underpin food production, our farmed environment, our communities, our rural businesses who are dependent on a thriving farming sector, our language and our culture for a generation to come,” said NFU Cymru president Aled Jones.

“I welcome the commitment from the cabinet secretary to take the time to listen to those impacted by the proposals and to work in partnership on the future development of the scheme.”

Read more: Weeks of political drama ahead as industry enters manifesto mode