Farming Minister Mark Spencer has said the expanded Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) “gives farmers more choice, makes things easier and pays out more”.

The expanded SFI offer, announced by the government today (Tuesday, May 21), will be open to new entrants for the first time and will initially comprise 102 actions, including over 20 new options to support more sustainable food production.

There will be payments for precision farming, agroforestry, a new and expanded offer for upland farmers and more actions for tenants on short-term contracts.

In addition, further new actions will support flood preparedness, helping businesses to become more resilient to the changing climate and challenging weather conditions, the government said.

The current scheme has received over 23,000 applications so far.

More than 50 simplified actions from Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier are set to be merged into SFI to streamline the application process for farmers.

They include a number of actions where durations have been reduced from five to three years to align with the needs of tenant farmers, the government said.

In addition to the expanded offer, the government has also launched a new digital tool known as ‘Find funding for land or farms’ to signpost customers toward the funding that is available to them.

Farming Minister Spencer said: “I recognise that farmers have had to deal with difficult circumstances this year, which is why we have delivered on our commitment to provide further detail on the expanded SFI offer ahead of applications opening in July.”

Countryside Stewardship

The application window for Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier will open in the winter, with agreements starting in January 2025, the government has confirmed.

“We have been improving the offer, making it simpler and reducing the burden of seeking advice and endorsement,” it said.

“We are developing even more actions and features to be added to the expanded SFI offer later this year, including an educational access action announced in January’s Agricultural Transition Plan update.

“These new actions will ensure farmers have greater choice and flexibility to produce food within SFI in a way that works best for them.”

The announcement follows the commitment made at the Oxford Farming Conference in January to increase payment rates by an average of 10% for SFI and CS agreements and introduce premium payments for actions that achieve the greatest environmental benefits.

‘Improved, broader and more flexible’

The deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), David Exwood, has said that the new SFI offer appears to be “improved, broader and more flexible”.

“Farmers and growers will need to take a close look at the latest developments provided by Defra and consider how these can be applied on farm,” he said.

“They include a hugely expanded SFI offer from 23 to 102 actions following a merger of SFI with CS Mid Tier, with a new improved moorland offer.

“This recognises the role hill farmers play in producing our food and looking after some of our most challenging and iconic farming landscapes.”

Exwood urged Defra to supply the details of the Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier scheme “as soon as possible”.

This, he said, will help those ending agreements or anyone wanting to transfer across from Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).

“It is important now that Defra and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) ensure that all these schemes have the resources needed to make delivery a success, with clear timelines for the application processes which will provide further clarity and allow our members to put together comprehensive agreements needed for their farming businesses,” he said.

“All farming sectors are feeling the squeeze following the cumulative loss of direct payments over the past four years and the slow transition to the ELM scheme.

“As we set out in our election manifesto, it’s vital the next government looks at the agricultural budget to ensure the UK farming sector is resilient and thriving, so our farmers and growers can continue doing what they do best; contributing to our national food security by producing sustainable, climate-friendly food alongside protecting and enhancing our precious environment.”