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Horticultural enterprises and SFI

Horticultural enterprises and SFI

At a webinar we ran in April 2024, as part of our Future Farming resilience support, we concentrated on the offer for those with horticulture enterprises.

A range of questions and issues emerged whilst preparing this and during the session itself that are worth addressing directly as FAQs. It is fair to say that stewardship support for small businesses, and horticultural ones particularly, has been poor, limited mainly to organic payments. It's also been too prescriptive for multi enterprise small businesses.

So can the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) change this?

How is Horticulture defined by DEFRA for SFI?

The whole basis of SFI is payment for actions that provide a public good (including clean air, clean water and healthy biodiverse environment). As such it is land use rather than  business purpose that is important. Growing crops including grass, wildflowers and annual vegetables, but also permanent crops in ways that also provide environmental services, is what is supported, not the type of business, although that continues to exclude greenhouse and protected cropping.

Is there enough support for horticultural businesses in SFI?

As enterprises growing crops, horticultural businesses are eligible for all of the options, but many are not suitable, particularly for the grass-based options. Most of the options are easy in large scale arable options, but not so suited to small plots of land. However, the more flexible approach with part-field options and less date-based requirements does make more of the options suitable.

Overlaps with Countryside Stewardship (CS) schemes will still create tensions. For example, herbal leys are good for biodiversity and soil structure when grown as fertility breaks in a horticultural system, but are not funded by SFI for organic farms receiving OT4 horticultural organic management. A legume fallow is a possible option but cannot be grazed or cut so doesn’t suit a mixed farm business.

Choosing options that you already do, or can adopt without significant farming change is the best way to utilise SFI.

DEFRA’s definition of 'permanent horticulture' lists commercial orchards, bush fruits, hops and vines.

What options can I apply for?

Although the organic conversion and management options will still not be available for orchards and vines due to their use for alcohol production, other options are available if you can demonstrate that you are achieving the objectives. For example, wildflower strips would fit into such a system but you need to be sure that you can comply with the objectives and still carry out farming practices.

Is it worth a small farm applying?

The 5ha rule has been removed and so any farming business will be able to apply for SFI and CS from the summer, but whether the payment will be enough will depend on how much time is needed to complete the forms and costs and time to carry out the actions. If you already have legume fallows, overwinter cover crops and wildflower strips in your system, as many organic producers do, then it would be a way of reimbursing existing costs with some management time. If you need to buy seed, equipment and labour for additional work, maybe not. However, the uncosted benefits of improved soil health and fertility leading to better yields and quality can make it an investment, which is where SFI offers a benefit beyond the economic one.

I have a lot of small plots. Does it have to be mapped and do I have to redraw them every year?

No, the application process is based on land areas in a field rather than the actual part of the field that is in an action and the system allows rotational fluctuations. As long as you claim for at least 50 percent of each action in following years, then you will get paid for that area, so rotational changes can be accounted for. You could have 3 or 4 actions in a field on different parts.

I don’t have a rotation that fitted the BPS year or December 31st year end

No problem, you apply for actions that you will do during the agreement year. As an example, the over winter cover crop option doesn’t have to be in place when you apply, it just needs to be planted during the agreement year. Fit the actions to your normal rotation and each part can be supported in some way.

I have apple trees on my fields. Can I add agroforestry as an extra option?

Yes, although we are waiting on the exact rules (as at April 2024), but the indication is that you can add agroforestry as an additional stacked option on top of other actions and CS options. However, where there is already a top fruit OT5 payment, it is classed as orchard and not eligible because OT5 is a whole field option. But small areas of orchard trees, which include nuts, in a field may be eligible as agroforestry subject to stocking rate rules.