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The improved Sustainable Farming Incentive will offer a greater number of sustainable criteria farmers can be rewarded for

Defra has announced a “simplified” and expanded update to its Sustainable Farming Incentive – part of the government’s post-Common Agricultural Policy and Environmental Land Management subsidy schemes.

The improved SFI will start accepting applications in a controlled rollout from August, the government confirmed today (21 June), offering farmers additional criteria and more flexibility to choose the criteria they want to get paid for.

ELM aims to pay farm subsidies based on so-called public goods, with the updated SFI now covering 23 “actions” that farmers can be rewarded for. These range from existing criteria such as soil health and moorland, plus new actions on preserving hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips, and low-input grassland.

The expanded criteria was more than twice as large as originally planned and offered farmers a reliable income, with payments made every three months, Defra said.

When adopted at scale, these actions would also “support sustainable food production and contribute towards the environmental targets set out in the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan”, it added.

“Optimising the use of nutrients through a nutrient management review, for example, will not only reduce Carbon Emissions and improve the natural environment but can also reduce farmers’ costs,” the government department pointed out.

The rollout of the schemes within the ELM regime have faced strong criticism from the farming sector over the past two years. Many producers have bemoaned the lack of information available on the schemes, a shortfall in funding as the sector transitions away from CAP payments, and often onerous criteria made worse by the sector’s ongoing challenges around input cost inflation, climate change and labour shortages.

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“After listening to extensive feedback from farmers, we’ve done a huge amount to streamline and improve the Sustainable Farming Incentive, making it as simple and flexible as possible for farmers to engage with, apply for and embrace,” said farming minister Mark Spencer.

“We want farmers to be able to access a package that works best for them. The scheme will remain flexible to allow for the changing needs and requirements of both farmers and their markets to ensure the best outcomes for food production and the natural environment.”

The update to the SFI, as well as the new measures announced at the Farm to Fork summit last month, were “supporting farmers to keep the nation fed while protecting and enhancing our environment”, Defra said, and were part of the £2.4bn annual farming budget ringfenced for the life of this parliament. The Number 10 Downing St summit included commitments to supply chain reviews for eggs and horticulture and an expansion of the seasonal worker scheme.

The National Farmers union welcomed the update to the SFI, with its vice president David Exwood encouraged by its “improved, broader and more flexible offer – changes that the NFU has been asking for”.

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