A complete guide to the expanded SFI 2024 offer

What will the latest Sustainable Farming Incentive offer mean for your rural business? CLA Senior Land Use Policy Adviser Cameron Hughes explains all
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The gradual roll-out of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) offer continues, with this week seeing the announcement of the latest updates.

This included details of the 102 actions due to be included in the new expanded Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) offer, which will open for applications from July 2024. The expanded offer is an amalgamation of:

  • The existing SFI 2023 offer
  • 23 newly introduced actions
  • 57 amended actions that previously sat within the now-redundant Countryside Stewardship (CS) Mid-Tier scheme

Key points

For farmers and land managers, the main actions to consider from the update are:

  • For the first time the scheme will open to businesses that have not historically received the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS)
  • The 23 new actions include those for no-till, agroforestry, precision farming and a range of moorland activities
  • Most of the actions (94) will be offered for a three-year period, with eight actions available for a five-year period
  • 10 actions will be capped at no more than 25% of the eligible area (this includes the existing capped actions in SFI 23)
  • The species rich grassland action will require endorsement from Natural England (NE), with full details expected in June. There are plans to introduce a further 15 actions requiring NE or Historic England endorsement later in 2024
  • The funding for capital grants will continue, with the addition of four new items for agroforestry planning and creation and a moorland mapping tool

The latest update included news on other parts of the ELM programme, including confirmation that the CS Higher Tier scheme is set to continue. Full details are due to be shared this summer, but the timeline indicates that applicants will engage with Natural England and the Forestry Commission over summer 2024, apply for their agreements this winter, with agreements starting in early 2025. Thereafter, Higher Tier will operate under rolling application windows.

The emergence of the SFI in recent years has prompted some agreement holders to express an interest in transferring across from their existing agri-environment scheme agreements. Defra has confirmed that this will be possible for those in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes or Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier schemes. Agreement holders will have the choice of either transferring at the end of an agreement year (31 December) or transferring mid-year. Those that choose to transfer mid-year will not receive a pro-rata payment for their terminated agreement, but will only be paid up to the end of the previous agreement year. Those in CS Higher Tier schemes will not be permitted to switch in most circumstances.

Other news included confirmation that enhanced payments for certain combinations of actions will be added in 2025 and that the English Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) will continue as a separately run scheme until 2026, at which point it will be amalgamated with the SFI and CS Higher Tier schemes.

CLA analysis

The expanded SFI offer builds on what has been an increasingly popular SFI scheme launched in summer 2023. Applications for the current ‘SFI 23’ scheme, total around 23,000, with over 18,000 live agreements.

Though it is yet another tweak to the scheme, the amalgamation of the SFI 23 offer with the Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier scheme is a simplification which makes sense in the long term. The proliferation of multiple schemes was in danger of creating confusion amongst farmers and advisers. In the short term the CLA will be pushing back against any further amendments to the scheme, which would frustrate members who have been doing their best to keep pace with the previous scheme changes.

It is exciting to see a range of new actions which are being funded for the first time. This includes the no-till, precision farming, agroforestry and moorland actions. The updated moorland offer in particular was much needed and is welcomed. However, the CLA remains concerned over what appears to be an imbalanced ELM offer across different land types and farming systems. We anticipate this latest announcement will be well received by those in the arable sector, who are set to benefit from a range of new, well-paying stackable payments on top of the existing SFI 23 offer. Our sense is that whilst there are welcome new options for grassland farmers, the overall offer is less appealing with lower payment rates.

It is disappointing that not all of the SFI offer will be available in July 2024. Farmers and land managers have been stuck in a cycle of promises of more SFI details and payment options for some years now, making it difficult for businesses plan without the full picture. The CLA will continue to push for the full SFI offer to be unveiled as early as possible.

CLA advice

As has been the case for the previous iterations of the SFI, members need to familiarise themselves with the scheme details, and determine whether any of the options might fit with their business. Inevitably this will take time, but Defra has produced an online tool to help applicants filter their options depending on land use type. They also plan on producing tailored sector-based leaflets later in the year with a range of relevant grants.

In terms of the application process, this is expected to remain largely similar to the SFI 23 process, though with a much wider choice of actions. The automated application process has not been without its glitches, but has overall meant that agreements can be offered much more rapidly than was the case under Countryside Stewardship. There will remain an onus on applicants to ensure their business details (e.g. mapping details) are up to date and familiarize themselves with the range of available actions before submitting their application.

Many members will already be signed up to existing schemes and will face decisions about if and how to incorporate the updated offer. Each will have to consider their own situation and the range of options. This might include continuing in their existing agreements until expiry, leaving early and transferring into a new scheme or having multiple schemes (paying for different actions) running alongside each other.

Next steps

In a similar fashion to previous years, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is planning on testing the updated SFI application system with volunteers. Those interested should complete the expression of interest form and submit this to the RPA. From 6 June, the RPA will start to control access to the existing application process. Testing of the new process is due to run from now to the 22 July, at which point applications will open to the wider sector. Those wishing to apply on common land will need to contact the RPA directly for bespoke support (information available here).

As ever the CLA is eager to gather member feedback on this latest update to the ELM offer. Please do not hesitate to contact us and share your thoughts so we can feed these into our conversations with Ministers, Defra and the RPA.

Agricultural Transition (England)

Visit the CLA's Agricultural Transition hub to keep up to date on the latest schemes and changes

Key contact:

Cameron Hughes
Cameron Hughes Senior Land Use Policy Adviser, London