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SFI or Countryside Stewardship?

10 differences between them

The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), DEFRA’s new environmental land management scheme, will finally be opening for applications at the end of September 2023. Many farmers can (very!) understandably struggle to see the difference between SFI and the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme. It probably doesn’t imply that the government have done the best job at creating their new scheme when you really have to dig deep to find the differences. However, there are some there. Here are 10 ways in which the SFI and Countryside Stewardship differ:

1. SFI agreements are for 3 years. Stewardship agreements are 5 years or more. For many farmers, this is the main advantage of SFI over Countryside Stewardship – for obvious reasons.

2. SFI is not competitive. Unlike Countryside Stewardship (particularly the Higher Tier, which can be difficult to qualify for) you are guaranteed to enter SFI.

3. SFI is far less prescriptive. DEFRA have (thankfully) done away with much of the cutting dates, input application weights and specifics often considered annoying and arbitrary by many farmers in Countryside Stewardship options. For example, GS2 (Countryside Stewardship) and LIG1 (SFI) are basically identical. They are both payments of £151/ha for very low inputs on permanent grassland.

Countryside Stewardship specifies:

· dates within which you are forbidden to cut for forage;

· dates you are forbidden to cut rushes;

· maximum amounts of fertiliser and manure application;

· no supplementary feeding.

The SFI equivalent, on the other hand, is more flexible:

· if a forage cut is planned, there just needs to be 7 weeks preceding it where the field is not grazed (no more specific dates);

· rushes can be cut at any time;

· nutrient inputs just need to be ‘minimised’;

· supplementary feeding is permitted.

Therefore, SFI does seem a bit more user-friendly. It takes into account – although not completely! – factors that impact farmers in real life, such as the weather, and regional differences.

4. SFI has some different options. Although many of the SFI options are basically identical to those existing under Countryside Stewardship, there are some new ones under SFI that can legitimately bring in some additional income. For example, IGL2: winter bird food on improved grassland. There is nothing similar to this in Countryside Stewardship, and for the right livestock system, this could potentially be a significant earner at £474/ha (over double BPS).

5. It is easier to ‘stack’ your options in SFI. Sadly, this is less extensive or financially lucrative than DEFRA initially made it out to be, but there are some options that can be added together on the same parcel of land to increase payments. For example, on a parcel of arable land, you could simultaneously have: SAM1 (soil testing), SAM2 (cover crop), IPM3 (companion crop) and IPM4 (no insecticide). This would bring in £235/ha.

6. SFI can be rotational on more options. Many more of the options in SFI can be moved around the farm annually. As long the parcel of land is no more than 50% larger or smaller than the originally entered hectarage, the subject land can change each year. This is particularly useful for the likes of the ‘no insecticide’ option (IPM4), where you may want it to follow the rotation of a certain crop, or for the winter bird food on improved grassland option (IGL2), where you may not want to build up three years’ worth of grass thatch.

7. SFI has lighter administration. SFI has an ‘annual declaration’ that you need to sign to confirm that you have met the aims for each action, and not engaged in any of the ‘prohibited activities’. This is less onerous than the revenue claim process under Countryside Stewardship. Similarly, SFI is more flexible over its lifetime. While Countryside Stewardship is fixed for five years, you can make changes to an SFI agreement every 12 months. With fewer options, only one period of agreement and only one ‘level’ (unlike the eight Stewardship types!) SFI is also much easier to navigate and apply for. This does mean, however, that there are only reasonably generic and simplistic options available under SFI; Countryside Stewardship remains the only opportunity for more niche management of wetlands, particular species or historical features.

8. SFI makes a ‘management payment’. This means that there is £20/ha available for all land entered into the scheme. Although this is capped at £1,000, it still means an additional (albeit small) payment for entering SFI over Stewardship.

9. SFI has no minimum or maximum land sizes required to enter an option. Many options within Stewardship require a minimum amount of land, or place a cap on the hectarage that can be entered. For example, the Countryside Stewardship option to take small areas out of management (GS1) is restricted to 0.5ha; whereas the SFI equivalent (IGL1) has no such cap. If you wanted, you could therefore take entire fields out of production in SFI.

10. SFI has a rolling window. Unlike Countryside Stewardship which always has a fixed period each year in which you have to apply, SFI can be applied for at any time of the year. This means there is no loss of income by ‘missing’ the window, and means that it can be more tailored to start at a time or season that works best for each farmer.

For many farmers, therefore, SFI will have some small advantages over Countryside Stewardship. Both SFI and Countryside Stewardship can certainly be worth entering for actions that you are already undertaking, or where the options would require little change to your farming system. For example, if you already regularly plant a cover crop, or you never take a third silage cut, then it is likely worth entering the appropriate options to give you some income for this! However, if an option is going to take you hours of additional labour and/or cost a fortune in inputs, then you may have to consider whether it is worth doing.

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