What are the organic options for 2016?
The main objective of the new Countryside Stewardship scheme is to improve the farmed environment for wildlife and to reduce diffuse water pollution.
The scheme has raised a few questions. What are the differences between the old Environmental Stewardship and the new Countryside Stewardship scheme? Which features of the organic options Should you be aware of in your application? How can you improve your chances of success when completing a mid-tier stewardship application? Soil Association Farm Advisor, Tim Bevan fills us in.
Should I still apply to the scheme post-Brexit?
Despite some press coverage to the contrary, the treasury have confirmed that they will honour Countryside Stewardship payments which are agreed before the Autumn 2016 budget. In a statement from the Treasury on 12 August, Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom said:
"Farmers are assured of current levels of funding until 2020 and any agri-environment schemes agreed before the Autumn Statement will be fully funded – even when these projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU."
When should I arrange for my conversion meeting with my certification body?
You need to give some thought to the date you decide to start organic conversion with your certifying body; otherwise there is a risk you may miss out on the full two years of organic conversion support currently available.
The critical dates are the start of all Countryside Stewardship contracts, 1st January, and the claim dates for organic payments, 15th May.
To secure two years of organic payments under stewardship and if your contract is due to start on 1stJanuary in the following year you should delay your organic conversion with your certifying body until after 15th May.
This is important as you need to be able to record your fields or land parcels as in conversion when you make your claims on 15th May. If your conversion had started before the 15th you will only be able to state land parcels as in conversion in year one of your contract; by the second year the land will be registered as fully converted and hence only eligible for management or maintenance payments. This could be a significant loss of financial support to your business and choosing to convert earlier should only be decided on if other factors outweigh this loss of income.
Countryside Stewardship in general
How is it different to the old Environmental Stewardship scheme?
The new scheme is open to all eligible farmers but it’s now a competitive and scored against specific criteria so not everyone who applies will be successful. The only non-competetive options are for organic conversion and maintenance.
There is no longer a whole farm agreement but farmers who take part will have to meet cross-compliance and other baseline management standards. The new scheme encourages the uptake of bundles of options, or combinations to produce positive environmental benefits for example the Wild pollinator and Farm Wildlife package.
Applications are in a limited window. For 2016 this was mid-March until the end of September. All new contracts will have a 1st January start date. No new windows for 2017 have been announced yet.
There are three main elements in the new scheme; higher tier, mid-tier agreements and a range of capital grants. There will be no new entry level schemes.
Both the mid-tier and the higher-tier include a package of options designed to support Pollinators and Farm Wildlife. Farmers who include the Package in their applications are more likely to be accepted in to the scheme. As part of this Farm Wildlife & Wild Pollinators Package, mid-tier applications options should cover 3-5% of the land area and 5-10% for higher tier applications
Agreements are multi-year and typically last for 5 years.
There are over 100 options, capital grants and supplements available at mid-tier and over 200 at the high-tier.
Capital works are now available in both tiers and there is also a hedgerows and boundaries capital grant package available to farms that are unable to get into either high or mid-tier schemes. These are typically 2 year grants. Other capital grants are for improving water quality, tree health, woodland creation and improvement and for feasibility studies.
There is a separate Facilitation fund to support groups of farmers who co-operate for landscape scale stewardship projects; as a guide these should cover at least 2000 hectares and spread over at least 4 ideally adjacent holdings. The facilitator receives a direct payment whilst mid-tier and higher –tier applications from participating farmers are more likely to be accepted if they are part of a facilitated group. The government website provides more detail; the application deadline for this year has now closed but there maybe a third round in 2017
Early conversion from existing schemes to Countryside Stewardship is possible for HLS agreements in their final year.
Other Environmental Stewardship agreements, such as ELS including OELS are expected to run their course before a holding is eligible for Countryside Stewardship. This has meant farm holdings in existing HLS and OELS agreements have not been able to take up new organic conversion options until the old scheme has expired.
What have we learned from 2015?
Applicants for organic management and conversion options need to look carefully at the definitions for the options OR3 and OT3 – Organic Conversion and Management of rotational land. In 2015 there were grey areas around long-term leys and semi-improved permanent grassland. This has since been changed and farmers taking up the organic rotational options need to prove the land has been cultivated within the previous 7 years. This is a rolling date so land may cease to be eligible as the agreement progresses unless further cultivations take place.
These organic options are not competitive and only subject to availability of funds and meeting the eligibility criteria. They can be a stand-alone application or used as part of mid or high tier agreement. Organic Conversion payments are for 2 years with the exception of permanent crops, such as fruit trees which attract 3 years of conversion payments. The applicant must not have received conversion payments on the land parcels applied for at any time in the past.
There is no minimum claim area for the organic options.
Beneficiaries of the organic options are required to be active farmers and must be the holder of the organic certificate and are required to have full management control of the land for the 5 years of the agreement or have signed consent from the landlord.
All organic land claimed for is required to have a valid organic certificate issued by an approved certifying body for the duration of agreement. Land going into organic conversion will also need a certifying body approved conversion plan that must cover all the land parcels entered into the agreement. Applications for conversion that are not yet registered with an Organic Certifying Body need to complete an organic viability plan. This is a short on line form to print out and complete, however a completed approved conversion plan will be required by the first annual claim for the organic conversion payment.
You may improve your chances with a mid-tier application
As I have said all Countryside Stewardship applications other than the organic options are competitive so you must take steps in your application to make sure you score highly against Natural England’s criteria.
You will get a basic score from the options in your application. You can improve this basic score by selecting options that meet the priorities for your geographical area, or national character area, and which targets a feature or issue with high priority. These details can be found on government website.
As an example water quality is a top priority for the Somerset levels so this would suggest you select options to reduce river pollution e.g. SW4 12m to 24m watercourse buffer strip on cultivated land.
In your application you should try to address at least one the top priorities for your national character area. The gov.uk website has a Countryside Stewardship Grants tool to help with option selection.
This will give you a basic score the next step is to look for a score uplift. There are several ways to do this:
- Select a bundle of options under the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package and these options should cover 3-5% of your total farmed area for a mid-tier application.
- If there is a water quality priority in your area obtain an endorsement from your Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer
- Be part of a facilitated group
Your final score is assessed as value for money the basic score plus the uplifts is divided by the total cost of the selected options. So please beware using options of a high cost that only score low as they do not meet the top priorities for your National Character Area.
And be aware, in England you need to register farmyards and similar with the Rural Land Register (RLR) if they are likely to be part of any capital works programme in the future such as for water quality capital works.
Other than organic land conversion and management there is a group of options available only to organic land, however, these are all competitive and so will be scored in the same manner as all other stewardship options.
Thinking about going organic?
Find out more about organic certification here.