OFC: Defra secretary unveils changes to ELM scheme

Environment secretary Steve Barclay announced a series of updates to farming schemes at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference, and took questions from farmers in a lively Q&A session.

Defra secretary Steve Barclay
Steve Barclay, Defra Secretary.

Speaking at the OFC today (4th January), Defra secretary Steve Barclay revealed a 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship this year.

Additionally, there are around 50 new actions that farmers can get paid for across all types of business, including for soil health, agroforestry, precision and robotics.

Other changes include a streamlined application process, which means it’s now possible to apply for both the SFI and CS Mid Tier in a single application.

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

The 2024 offer also includes more actions for shorter length agreements of up to three years, to make the schemes more accessible for tenant farmers, he said.

The government has introduced more ‘maintenance’ actions, alongside improving existing actions, to reward farmers who are already protecting the environment, for example through maintaining grasslands, wetlands and scrub.

Farmers will also be paid more for existing actions to maintain habitats, with the price of maintaining species rich grassland, for example, rising from £182 to £646 per hectare.

To promote crop innovation, up to five contracts with an initial value of £15 million will also be available, as well as further grants in 2024.

As well as the updates to farming schemes, the Defra secretary unveiled plans to increase transparency in food labelling, to support British farmers and help consumers make informed choices.

Finally, Mr Barclay confirmed that culling will continue to be used as a tool in the fight against TB.

Largely welcome changes

NFU’s vice president David Exwood said much of the announcement was welcomed, but questions remain over the deliverability of these new options. 

“It remains hugely frustrating that nearly six years on from the Health and Harmony consultation, which set farming in England on a path towards public goods for public payments, government is still a long way behind on its commitments.

“With a minimum of 50% 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.”

NFU reiterated its calls for a mid-term review to assess the impact of the agricultural transition on food production and farm business viability.

Valuing farmers

A Q&A following the announcements underscored the anxiety in the industry about how the government values farming, and how it plans to tackle the effects of volatility and risk.

Derbyshire farmer Jane Bassett said upland farmers had been neglected by the schemes, noting that Defra figures show a 47% loss in subsidy income on average.

She also highlighted tensions between farmers and regulatory bodies. Mr Barclay said the government heard the concerns and whilst it’s not an overnight fix, is hoping to foster more of a relationship of trust, rather than suspicion, with farmers.

Commenting on the new announcement he 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 timeline for agreements being offered will be accelerated to help farmers benefit from the changes earlier than in previous years, Defra said.

For further information on the offer visit the gov.uk environmental land management article

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