The roll out of the expanded Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) 2023 offer has been frustratingly slow. However, the latest announcement from Defra shows that we are moving a step closer towards candidates in England finally being able to submit their applications.
So, with this in mind, what do members need to know?
The recent changes
The SFI will begin to accept applications from the 18th September, as stated in a Defra press release published recently. Nevertheless, that is not to say that those interested in applying for the scheme should wait until then to act.
On 30th August, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) sent out communications to all businesses who are likely to be eligible to apply for the SFI 2023 offer. These emails and letters explained that those interested in submitting an application should register their interest.
Between this step and the new deadline, applicants should work to ensure that they are ready to apply. This might include updating business details or informing the RPA on boundary or land use changes relevant to the scheme. The RPA will then start to invite candidates to submit applications from the 18th September.
The delays and uncertainty over the course of 2023 have been unhelpful for farmers and land managers, but the CLA is pleased to have some certainty on the launch date of the SFI 2023 offer.
Given the realities of further Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) cuts and the wider economic picture, there is no room for further delays. The CLA is acutely aware of the cash flow issues facing members, especially when we consider the second installment of the reduced 2023 BPS payment which is due in December. Our expectation is that the delays will enable the RPA to ensure an automated and streamlined SFI application process that is fit for purpose.
Those able to submit applications at the earliest opportunity from 18th September will need to wait to be offered an agreement before accepting and then being issued with a live offer. The very first live agreements therefore are likely to be in place by early October, with the first quarterly payment being issued in January 2024. Those in more complex situations, such as those farming commons or with multiple agri-environment agreements, will have to wait a little longer to be invited in to apply, though timelines will depend on the progress of the rollout.
The pre-application registration of interest phase is likely to be removed once the scheme is up and running and the RPA no longer need to closely manage the phased roll out. However, for those eager to be amongst the first to apply, you will need to register your interest. If there are any boundary or land cover changes in your SFI application, you should make these as soon as possible, as the required rural land and entitlements (RLE1) form can take time to process.
A key point members should note is that for the 23 different SFI actions, you can enter an agreement if you are already delivering the action in a way which meets the requirements stated in the handbook while not already being paid to do so. i.e. the SFI agreement does not need to pre-date the delivery of the action. For example, if you are already growing companion crops on arable or horticultural land, you can enter this land into the integrated pest management (IPM3) SFI action, even if it is partway through the growing season.