Item 1: Sustainable Farming Incentive 2023: commonly asked questions and answersThere are loads of great reasons to apply to the Sustainable Faring Incentive scheme. These include enhancing productivity and resilience, while also protecting the environment your land exists within. Agreements take place over a three-year period and the rolling application window means farmers can start agreements at a time that works for them. Agreements will start on the first of the following month after accepting an offer and first payments will be issued four months after an agreement’s start and then every three months following this. The SFI scheme has been designed to work flexibly alongside other agreements and can be tailored to suit the specific needs of land. Ahead of applying, farmers should ensure their land data is up to date and access the numerous resources published by the RPA to help provide support through the application process.
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Beth: Hello and welcome to the seventh episode of The RPA Podcast. I’m Beth McAdam, and in today’s programme, we revisit the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme in greater depth, discussing the opportunities presented by the SFI scheme for food production, farm productivity and resilience, as well as environmental protection. We will be answering frequently asked questions we have received from applicants and those considering applying.
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Item 1: Sustainable Farming Incentive: Frequently asked questions from applicants on the 2023 offer
Beth: We opened the Sustainable Farming Incentive for applications, for the 2023 offer, in August of this year and have been thrilled to receive many applications, feedback and queries about the scheme. To ensure applicants have all the support and information they need to progress their applications, we are focusing today’s podcast on answering some of these queries, so more famers can benefit from the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme.
To help answer some of these questions, I’m joined today by Stephen Veasey from the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) Delivery team here at RPA – thank you for joining us, Stephen.
Stephen: Thanks for having me, it’s good to be here.
Beth: Let’s kick off with a question that I imagine most farmers have been considering in recent months – why should they apply to SFI?
Stephen: There are loads of great reasons to apply to SFI, both for the productivity and resilience of your farm and for the environment it exists within. In the SFI scheme, there are 23 actions to choose from, sitting across eight different areas, they are: soil health, moorlands, hedgerows, integrated pest management, nutrient management, farmland wildlife, buffer strips and low input grassland. By applying sustainable food production practices on your farm, you could improve soil health, enhance farmland biodiversity or help mitigate the impact of extreme weather - all of which help look after your farm in both the short and long term.
You can also enter as much land as you want and choose how many actions you do. Then, once you’re in SFI, you can add more land and actions to your agreement each year as needed.
Now, we want to work with farmers to deliver the outcomes, so how you complete the actions you select is up to you. And this is a really different approach we are taking.
So, we’ve made continuous improvements to our schemes, making it as easy and straightforward as possible to apply. For agreements issued in 2024 and onwards, your first payment will be four months after your SFI agreement starts. After that you’ll be paid every three months, so you have regular, reliable income.
Beth: Thanks Stephen, and what sort of thing can farmers get paid to do under an SFI agreement?
Stephen: Once a farmer has received their agreement for the SFI scheme, they will be paid over a three year period to take environmental land management actions - to support farmers to manage land in a more sustainable way. There is also the opportunity to receive a one-off payment for a vet to visit your farm annually to review the health and welfare of your livestock and give you advice about improvements that could be made.
Beth: That’s great - and how will gaining an SFI agreement impact the agricultural activity of the applicant?
Stephen: The environmental land management actions in SFI will have benefits for both the environment and agricultural productivity. The scheme will help make agriculture more environmentally sustainable – but it’s also about farmers continuing their vital role in producing food and has been designed with this aim in mind.
Beth: and what about farmers who also want to benefit from the Countryside Stewardship scheme or already have an existing Countryside Stewardship agreement? Are they still able to apply?
Stephen: Applicants are able to have a Countryside Stewardship or Environmental Stewardship agreement and an SFI agreement at the same time. So that means you can combine SFI actions with other scheme options, providing even greater flexibility. However, applicants should be aware that actions must be compatible, and they can’t be paid for the same action twice – this would be regarded as what we call “dual funding”. Further information on this is given in both the ‘SFI Handbook’ and the ‘How to Apply’ guide which can be found on GOV.UK.
Beth: Great, thank you, so what actions would you recommend farmers who are considering applying take to prepare and ensure their application is accepted?
Stephen: That’s a good question, Beth. Firstly, farmers need to make sure their land data is up to date. That’s very important. All farmers planning to apply should check their details on the Rural Payments Service and make any changes that are needed to avoid delays later in the process – mapping changes on average take around 2 weeks to process so it’s best to ensure these are processed before starting an application. We’ve published numerous resources to help advise applicants on how to do this.
Beth: Can you tell us more about those?
Stephen: Sure, In June 2023, we published the Handbook for the SFI 2023 offer, which sets out the full details of this year’s SFI offer, to make sure farmers could plan ahead for their applications and autumn planting – so this includes a section on 'What you should do before you apply for an SFI agreement'. We also issued a ‘How to Apply’ guide in September and published an accompanying video setting out how to apply for your agreement, so there should be plenty of resources available for potential applicants to make use of.
Beth: And for those considering applying – what routes are available for them to submit applications through?
Stephen: The best way to apply is online through the Rural Payments Agency application portal, where it’s straightforward to submit your application and manage your agreement. Once you’ve submitted your application, the RPA will issue your agreement which will start the month after you accept it. However, if you can’t apply online, for example if you don’t have access to the internet or a computer, call us on 03000 200 301 and we can help you.
Beth: That’s very useful, thank you Stephen. And how many farmers have already secured their agreements this year?
Stephen: We are thrilled to say that, as of today, we now have over one thousand live agreements and over 300 further offers with customers, waiting for them to accept. So some of these farmers have already received their payment within the first month of opening the scheme and we continue to make advance payments of 25% in the first month for agreements that started in October and November, this will continue until the end of this year.
Beth: What about farmers who are already on an SFI22 agreement? Are they still able to apply to this year’s SFI offer?
Stephen: Farmers who’ve got an ongoing SFI22 agreement are still able to apply to for the 2023 offer and won’t need to take any other measures. RPA will work with those agreement holders to work out the best transition between agreements for them.
Beth: And for those who enter an SFI agreement this year, will they still be able to add in new SFI actions that will be introduced in the future?
Stephen: Yes, of course. Farmers will be able to ask us to upgrade their SFI agreement each year, towards the end of the first and second years of your agreement. This will allow them to add more SFI actions and eligible land.
Alternatively, if an applicant doesn’t want to wait for the anniversary of the agreement, they can begin a new application for the additional actions on land, either within the current SFI agreement or new land.
Beth: Thanks Stephen. Now, there have also been some questions around the timing of agreements – can a farmer delay the start of their SFI agreement to align with either harvest or planting season?
Stephen: Well, SFI has a rolling application window, so you can apply at whatever is the right time for you. When you receive and accept your offer the agreement will begin on the first of the following month.
Beth: Many of the farmers thinking of applying to SFI are tenant farmers, will they be able to enter all the schemes?
Stephen: We’ve designed SFI with tenants firmly in mind and we’ve been working closely with the Tenant Farmers Association on the issues that matter to the farmers that they represent.
We’ve ensured that more tenant farmers can access SFI than has been the case under previous schemes. This includes farmers with tenancies on a ‘rolling’ annual year-by-year basis, who can enter that land into SFI – if they expect to have ‘management control’ of it for the whole 3-year duration of their SFI standards agreement.
Tenants may need to get their landlord’s permission – that will depend on the terms of their individual tenancy agreement. In practice, most SFI actions will work alongside tenancy actions, but it’s the tenant’s responsibility to confirm this. However, unlike Countryside Stewardship, SFI doesn’t specifically require tenants to confirm landlord permission as part of application process.
Beth: Great, thank you Stephen, and what would you recommend farmers to do if they’re unsure about switching to SFI?
Stephen: I would suggest that they start by taking a look at the guidance out there and making a judgement for themselves, based on what they think is best for their land and business – and you can find guidance at www.gov.uk/future-farming. There’s a lot of great opportunities available in the scheme so it’s definitely worth taking a look to avoid missing out!
Beth: Ah that’s brilliant, thank you, and finally, what’s coming next for SFI?
Stephen: We’re rolling out SFI environmental land management actions incrementally. As the scheme expands each year, more SFI actions will be introduced, so the scheme keeps developing and the full set is available by the end of 2024. You’ll be able to add more actions and eligible land to your SFI agreement each year.
Beth: Wonderful, looking forward to that then! Thanks so much for your time today, Stephen.
Stephen: Thanks Beth, it’s been a pleasure.
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Beth: So, that’s all we’ve got time for today. Thank you to Stephen for taking the time to answer these questions today - and thank you, once again, for listening. We’ve dived into one key topic today, in response to the questions we’ve seen coming in around the scheme, but we’re always happy to receive your questions and suggestions as to what we should cover. So, if you’d like us to cover a particular topic or issue with our subject experts, please get in touch. You can e-mail us at External.Affairs@rpa.gov.uk, or you can follow us on Twitter - @Ruralpay - or you can follow the Rural Payments Agency on Facebook. We’ll be back soon with the eighth episode of the RPA podcast, as we keep you updated on developments at RPA and support you through the agricultural transition process. Goodbye.
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seen at 16:47, 17 November in Rural payments.
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