SFI: The Sustainable Farming Incentive & Cluster Groups

In our latest blog, one of our directors – Arthur Barraclough – looks at some of the recent questions about the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and the role that this particular scheme has to play…


What is the Sustainable farming Incentive and why is it important?  

The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) is one of the three environmental land management schemes introduced by the government, alongside Countryside Stewardship and Landscape Recovery.

The scheme will be available for all farmers, and will make ongoing payments to farmers over the agreed period to manage their land in an environmentally-sustainable way. It is the closest equivalent to the BPS, but rewards farmers for specific actions which they can identify and choose as best suited to their land.

For me, this scheme highlights the importance of the overlap between gamekeeper and farmer. It’s a clear demonstration that the work that has been carried out for decades by gamekeepers is becoming more mainstream and being understood as work for the farmer too.

If done correctly and with the right advice, the scheme also pays farmers handsomely, making it an essential avenue to consider, particularly now when farm margins are constantly under pressure.


How big a part of the ELMs project do you see the Sustainable Farming Incentive?

I can see the new SFI roll-out forming a huge part of the ELMs transformation. The simple nature of the ‘standards’ is appealing to farmers, and it can be linked into existing CS schemes.

The SFI pilot project last year was well received, with over 900 farmers and land managers taking part. One step forward with the SFI is the fact that the main objectives have been made clear, which has not always been the case in years gone by. The five main objectives are creating a wildlife-rich habitat, improving water quality, improving flood resilience, creating new woodland habitats and reducing carbon emissions.


What are the main benefits to the scheme recognising that each farming enterprise is different?

At Bright Seeds we have constant conversations with growers to tailor their stewardship cropping towards their soil type, location and so on. Having a scheme that is keen to encourage flexibility is great news for everyone, and this will only help maximise the results for wildlife.

This can work well for shooting estates too, options that are beneficial to game can be used. Wild-bird mixtures, hedgerow establishment and wildflower margins are just some of the options that will go down well with the game department! Wild-bird shoots rely on top-notch habitats to keep game populations at a suitable and sustainable level, and the SFI standards will all help in improving the suitability of the estate for wild game.

And, though the scheme recognises that each enterprise is different, there are several benefits to farmers acting together as ‘cluster groups’.


Is it necessary for farmers to be members of cluster groups, or can they cooperate outside any formal arrangement?

It is not essential for farmers to join a cluster group; as each farm holding will enter separately into a stewardship scheme. For some farmers, it does not work geographically to be part of such a group. And, ultimately, farmers want to be – and should be – in charge of their own destiny.

However, the main benefit of a cluster farm approach is generally the ‘facilitator’. Cluster groups will normally be headed up by a person who can over-see the group and deal with companies and organisations, such as Bright Seeds, on behalf of the cluster members.

Another benefit of being part of a cluster group is assistance with the potentially daunting process of entering a scheme. Working alone can be stressful, and some farmers can be put off from entering altogether. However, with a community of farmers all aiming for similar objectives, it can be an exciting and rewarding process. Shoot-wise, rolling out the SFI across the estate can offer a really good opportunity to enhance existing habitats, including game cover crops.


How can cluster groups work with their suppliers to get the best out of these schemes moving forward?

One of the most exciting parts of the new ELMs regime is the emphasis on landscape scale conservation. We have been working with a number of farm cluster groups to create connecting habitats between different farms. This more integrated method avoids the risk of areas of favourable habitats becoming isolated. Instead, the overall benefits can quickly spread on a landscape scale. The term being used within the ELMs framework is ‘Landscape Recovery’.

One thing I have noticed from working with farm cluster groups is the brilliant way in which farmers come together to achieve the objectives. The Selborne Landscape Partnership in Hampshire is a fine example of this. This farm cluster group has reached 28 members and covers a total area of nearly 6,000 hectares, and it is clear from group meetings and farm events that they are going about it in the right way. This has resulted in some great conservation results across the whole area, whilst still being able to maintain intensive arable agricultural practises.


What is significant about the tenant not requiring landlord approval for participation in the SFI?

The SFI payment is made to the farmer doing the work, so for tenant farmers this provides a great opportunity for funding. The SFI agreement is a three-year contract, so you’re not tied in for five years like a traditional CS scheme. Agreements can be withdrawn easily too within the three years if circumstances change.


With Ukraine and high inflation dominating world politics, is the government as committed to this as you would like?

This is a controversial subject. There will always be topics that come ahead of agricultural funding, and rightly so. But these ongoing global issues have highlighted just how important agriculture is. It may seem obvious to those in the industry, but I believe many members of the general public don’t realise the intricate work that farmers and land-managers carry out to ensure food security, as well as a favourable and sustainable environment.

Of course, there needs to be a balance between food production and conservation areas. One source of frustration has been the delay and constant U-turning on various stewardship roll-outs. The good news… it seems now with the simple and focused approach of the new SFIs that there is a lot of enthusiasm, and here at Bright Seeds we are pleased to see continued demand for stewardship seed and advice.

For any further advice on ELMs rollout, or for help with what schemes could be most beneficial for you, contact Bright Seeds

For government information on SFI, please follow the link here.