Applications for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) pilot scheme have opened, with all 2,178 farmers who submitted an expression of interest earlier in the year now invited to take part.
As set out in the original Defra notification in March, there are eight “standards” within the SFI pilot that farmers can get involved with, covering arable land, arable soils, farm woodland, hedgerows, improved grassland, improved grassland soils, low input grassland and water buffering.
For each of these, there are three possible levels of involvement – introductory, intermediate and advanced – that will attract different rates of payment, broadly equivalent to existing Countryside Stewardship rates.
In June, Defra issued further details of what will actually be required under each standard and confirmed that farmers taking part will be paid the equivalent of £27/hour for so-called learning activities to provide regular feedback on the pilots.
As well as opening for applications, an update on the Defra website this week also confirms that the arable and improved grassland “soil standards”, which were announced last week for when the SFI proper starts in 2022, are now being incorporated in the pilot scheme too.
This means that, to claim the arable soil payment, farmers should complete a basic soil assessment, establish green cover over winter on 5% of the area, and increase soil organic matter on 10% of the area.
To get the higher payments, among other things they will have to increase the area of cover crops to 10-15% of the area and adopt low- or no-til techniques on 25% of the area.
The improved grassland soil standards have other conditions about establishing legume, herb and grass mixes, and managing stocking densities.
The adoption of these two new standards also changes the rates of payment on offer, such that the arable soil standard should pay £26/ha, £41/ha or £60/ha for introductory, intermediate and advanced activities, while the improved grassland soil standard should pay £26/ha, £44/ha and £70/ha respectively.
However, the guidance notes also specify that the actions and payment rates are “indicative”, meaning that they may well change again later this year.
The deadline for applications is 1 September 2021 and Defra anticipates that around 1,000 live pilots should be under way by October.