The Kings team has delivered a series of grower workshops across a number of regions in recent weeks to provide support and insight on a wide range of land-based topics. These included getting the best from Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), guidance on simplified offers from Natural England, and how best to integrate stewardship and sporting interests.
A very common theme among growers has been ongoing confusion and frustration regarding opportunities provided by Countryside Stewardship. Many have heard negative feedback and read coverage in the farming press and are understandably reluctant to look too far in terms of what is on offer.
So how have Kings' workshops been of help to growers with this? Well, as with many elements in life, it helps to talk. Many growers' view with regard to stewardship schemes is that paperwork is horrendous and payments are delayed. We can't completely disagree but what we can say is that things are getting better - slowly. Getting negativities aired early on allows us to then turn focus to the good bits, of which there are plenty.
One of our first questions we ask growers is, what have you done since your ELS agreements ended? A common response is 'not much; many of the features remain as they were'. This is music to our ears as we can then illustrate that margins and field corners can relatively simply be moved into a new scheme and start to earn money again. Using the 'Flower Rich Margins and Plots' option (AB8) pays £538/ha which isn't to be sniffed at. Admittedly, converting standard grass margins into flower rich margins takes some work but is relatively easily achieved as long as a clear plan of attack is followed. The bottom line is what other crop or land management activity can earn that sort of money on very marginal land year in year out throughout a five year agreement?
A common criticism has been that application for Countryside Stewardship is too complex. Well, thankfully, Defra listened to feedback and introduced simplified offers in 2018. These are applied for online and take up a minimum of 1% nectar flower and 2% wild bird seed (with no ceiling on area covered). A frequent response to this is 'It's too good to be true' followed by 'it's a no-brainier'.We agree!
When you unpick the knot growers begin to see clarity regarding the best way forward. With money ring fenced for the five years of the agreement, regardless of what happens over the coming months and years, funding is safe. Kings advisory team's key phrase continues to be 'better to be on the agri-environment bus learning now, than not be on it at all'. Not being in a scheme means that no additional money is earned for marginal land. If in doubt assess your financial situation and do the maths. Will 1 ha of marginal land earn more from stewardship or from combinable crops? In many cases I think I would be taking the stewardship option.
Getting the best from EFAs
Another area of clarity our workshops have provided is how to get the best from EFAs. The ideal time to consider EFA requirements and how best to fulfil them, is whilst Basic Payment Scheme forms are being completed.
Many growers are using hedges and field margins but we have found that ring fencing EFA needs with the catch or cover crop options keeps things simple and supports soil improvement requirements. Alternatively, several attendees have left our sessions realising that the Fallow option offers greater flexibility than they first realised:
- They can be driven on (whereas CS margins cannot). Great for planning access around the farm or for turning on steep banks, for example.
- Plant protection products can be used to support the establishment of wild bird seed mixtures – you just can't use them until after the 30th June
- Using grass and clover mixtures meets EFA Fallow requirements, improves soils and benefits the wider farmed environment.
Our workshops have proved to be extremely popular and Kings' advisors have found them to be a great test of their expertise as we never know what the next question will be. As with all elements of the farm business, it is good to talk and engaging in a wider reaching discussion adds value for all involved.
We will continue these sessions throughout the year across the UK. If you are keen to explore the best way forward with regard to EFAs and stewardship, join us. Don't dismiss it until you have chance to learn more.