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Making the Sustainable Farming Incentive work for your farm: Crop production and environmental management don’t need to be competitive


At the beginning of December the government released further detail on the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and how the widescale roll-out to all growers will work in 2022.

Before we look further into the options available to growers later in the blog, it is worth emphasising from the start that the SFI offers a real opportunity for growers to align and unify their crop production goals with their environmental goals. We know that crop and food production are central to farm decision-making but, given what we've seen of the SFI so far, it appears it will be easier to farm in a way that offers environmental benefits while supporting sustainable crop production systems - and receive financial support for doing so.

So, what do we know about the Sustainable Farming Incentive?

Sustainable Farming Incentive Pilot

The SFI pilot began in 2021 and is built around testing the initial eight standards from DEFRA. Currently, there are 940 participants, with the pilot set to last for three years. As it continues to gather feedback from the test group of farmers, this will be used to develop the formal SFI rollout.

Sustainable Farming Incentive 'go-live'

Following the initial findings of the pilot, the official rollout of the SFI will begin in the spring of 2022. At this point, applications will be open for all eligible growers. Only four elements have been confirmed for this first phase so far; three land management standards and one review:

1.  Arable and horticultural soils standard

2.  Improved grassland soils standard

3.  Moorland and rough grazing standard (introductory level only)

4.  Annual health and welfare review (classed as a review not a standard)

You can apply for different land management standards on different field parcels. Each land management standard contains three 'levels of ambition', each of which has a collection of required actions. The three levels of ambition are Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced. Each builds upon the previous; for example if you were to apply for the Intermediate level you would also need to meet all the requirements of the Introductory level. You can select standards that are applicable to your farm business and which will allow you to take steps to achieve more sustainable management on farm.

Those of you who have been following the development of SFI will have noticed that the Advanced level of the arable and horticultural and improved grassland soils standards have been removed from the roll out for 2022. Instead, DEFRA has indicated the Advanced levels of both standards will be offered in 2023 instead. You can see the proposed timeline for rolling out additional standards in the table below, with the full scheme set to be available by 2025.

Standards confirmed for 2022 Proposed standards for 2023 ​Proposed standards for 2024 ​Proposed standards for 2025
1. Arable and horticultural soils
2. Improved grassland soils
3. Moorland and rough grazing (Introductory level only)
4. Annual health and welfare review  
​• Soils standards (Advanced levels)
• Nutrient management
• Integrated pest management (IPM)
• Hedgerows 
​• Agroforestry
• Low and no input grassland
• Moorland and rough grazing (all levels)
• Water body buffering
• Farmland biodiversity 
​• Organic
• On-farm woodland
• Orchards and specialist horticulture
• Heritage
• Dry stone walls 

Increased flexibility

The SFI has been designed to offer greater flexibility than previous schemes.

Firstly, agreements will be shorter than past schemes, lasting for just three years. Secondly, you will have the ability to amend your agreement every 12 months, meaning you can add additional standards as they become available or add more land into your agreement. The annual review will also give you the opportunity to increase your ambition levels within a standard if you would like to see greater benefits, both for your farm productivity and financially.

It is worth noting that you won't be able to remove options or land from your agreement during these reviews. It is anticipated that as the roll out expands and more standards become available, in some instances you will be able to apply for multiple standards on the same parcel. Furthermore, in its December update DEFRA stated that "a farmer can engage in SFI and a private scheme for the sale of environmental outcomes on the same area of land", which offers even greater income stream potential for growers. This position will be reviewed in 2023 and annually thereafter depending on the development of private markets.

This flexibility allows you to take a measured approach by entering a small number of land parcels to begin with and subsequently growing your agreement over the three years as you assess how each standard best delivers benefits within your crop production system. 

Countryside Stewardship

While the SFI is undoubtedly a great opportunity, it is worth remembering that Countryside Stewardship is still open for applications in 2022 and 2023. There are several ways of applying but for most, the best option will be to complete a Wildlife Offer. However, if you are in a high priority area for Catchment Sensitive Farming or there are capital works such as a large amount of hedge restoration you wish to complete, you would be better to consider applying for a Mid-Tier agreement. There will be more details on the 2022 application process in February and we'll also be publishing more advice through the season. In the meantime, please contact your local Kings advisor if you'd like to know more. 

The advantage of a Wildlife Offer is once you have correctly completed the application forms you are guaranteed an agreement. The application process itself is very simple, the only difficult part is choosing which options to put where! However, the straightforward way that the options are set out even helps to make that easier. There are great options such as six-metre buffer strips, two-year legume fallows, herb rich leys, wild bird mixes and pollen and nectar strips. All of these will, if positioned well and incorporated within your wider farm rotation, offer both crop production and financial benefits. 

Recording and monitoring

Whether you choose to enter either the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Countryside Stewardship or are considering future private sector funded opportunities, one thing will be vital for all of them: recording and monitoring your data.

Having an accurate record of your actions and the progression of your farm will be invaluable. The environment manager tool within MyFarm allows you to map your environmental features alongside the rest of your farm data so you can easily plan, record and monitor the benefits. 


With the SFI and Countryside Stewardship there are easily attainable benefits to areas like soil health and IPM that can enhance your crop production without hindering it. We need to remove the competition between environmental and crop production activities as we know they both positively interact, which is what we are looking to do with our Sustainable Crop Production approach.

This brings us back the start of the blog. When you look at SFI, don't think of how to fit it around crop production. Think about how SFI can enhance it and create a more sustainable crop production system.

Looking for guidance and support to choose the right option for your business?
For help with how to make your future environmental schemes work as part of your sustainable crop production system, please speak to your local Frontier contact or one of our advisors. 

Hannah Clarke, Kings Technical Advisor
Edward Jones, SOYL & Sustainability Knowledge Exchange Manager

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Tuesday, 16 July 2024

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