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Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI)

Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI)

The year that keeps giving

I recently had a one-to-one call with a farm that has had 146 days with rain of some sort and the knock on effects on grass and crop growth are likely to be challenging.

However, as a result of the call we were able to find a significant mix of SFI options to increase income in addition to a good Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement. Irritatingly their usual advisor wasn’t aware that organic farmers could add SFI options because they thought that the CS agreement meant they were not eligible.

Getting ready for CS

Many people are now starting to get agreements in place or are already getting payments with the opportunity to add further options under an additional agreement in the summer when the renewed CS goes live. With that in mind, although it is a chore, looking through the existing Countryside Stewardship options to see which ones are potentially useful to you is worth doing-there are a lot that are already happening but unfunded on farms-just skip those that are not relevant on your farm.

Nature or food?

The question of nature or food has been raised again with the announcement that certain options are going to be limited to 25% of the farm-stopping farms putting everything into SFI options and having a 3-year holiday. Anyone with an existing agreement is not affected by this. Our advice is that we should use SFI to pay for what we already do and SFI supports farming with nature, chasing subsidy is not the way to develop farm businesses.

The payment rates are calculated on income foregone plus costs which explains why some farms see that it is better to stop production if income levels are the same. It also partly explains why grassland farmers are not seen to be supported by the scheme's payment rates, because income lost on grassland is a lot harder to calculate.

During our one-to-one calls a few common questions emerged, so this is an opportunity to answer them.

What is improved grassland?

Permanent grassland has been agriculturally ‘improved’ by doing one or more of the following activities: 

  • regularly re-seeding, or re-seeding within the last 15 years 
  • regularly applying fertiliser (typically at least 100kg per hectare of nitrogen as an artificial compound fertiliser) lime, or animal manures and slurries 
  • blanket herbicide application to treat weeds
  • maintaining field drains
  • taking conserved forage as silage, haylage or hay, more than once a year
  • It will usually have a high cover of ryegrasses and white clover, with a low cover of wildflowers and sedges.
  • Unimproved grassland will be the opposite-long term grassland which hasn’t had inputs and will have high levels of natural grass species, likely to have high levels of wildflowers, and sedges.
  • Thistles, docks, ragwort etc are not indicators of unimproved grassland.

This also means that the ‘3-year rule’ where a temporary grass field becomes permanent pasture and can’t be ploughed up or called arable is also avoided-this was always just a BPS rule.

What is a Herbal Ley for SAM3?

The definition is loose being a mix of grass, legumes and herbs and is leading to some mickey taking. SFI, by trying to move away from prescriptive guidance has left a loophole but best practice is a mix of multiple grasses, legumes and herbs with the equivalent CS GS4 option saying 5 grasses, 3 legumes and 5 herbs. That guidance also requires no fertiliser inputs. Herbal leys also suit a longer cutting or grazing rotation to allow the slower growing species to develop and flower. Ley length can be extended by leaving it to seed after 3 years to regenerate naturally.

There is more guidance in our Herbal Leys 'How To' guide.  

My field doesn’t seem to qualify for the SFI option I want?

Land use codes were based on the land use on the annual Basic Payments Scheme (BPS) application form that will no longer be required. This means that unless you change it, it will remain. One example I encountered recently was a farm that had a muck heap recorded as a temporary feature which meant the field was not eligible for a whole field option or the hedge payments. Removing the temporary feature from the maps resolved this. You can do this on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website following this guidance.

What is a hedge?

A hedge is defined as a planted line of shrubs that is over 20 metres long, less than 5 metres wide and contains at least 80% native shrubs.  It should not have gaps of more than 20m. Big shrubby hedges qualify. A tree is generally something with a clear stem and isolated canopy and not just a shrubby plant - hollies are often examples of big shrubby plants that are not trees. 

A row of mature trees is not a hedge. There is a very good recording app called Healthy Hedges which also has a downloadable version you can be used for recording and explaining this.


I have more questions, what can I do?

Come along to one of our Future Farm Resilience (FFR) farm walks, evening meetings or webinars. We're holding them throughout the year, including events which will be more targeted to horticulture, cover crops and green finance etc. 

We are also available for one-to-one calls or follow up calls if you have already talked to one of our advisors. The FFR scheme is funded by Defra, who require that you only receive the free advice from one supplier (other organisations are running similar events) but there isn’t a limit on how many times you can talk to us.

We have lots of other information relating to keeping on top of changes in payments and support on our Resources page.