Getting to grips with SFI
Soil Association Exchange Head of Farming Advice Beth Metson shares her thoughts on SFI, and highlights what to look out for when getting involved.
There are so many positives about the new options in the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) plus some areas you need to think carefully about when applying.
Flexibility in the new SFI is a welcome change and one we as an industry are not used to, but something we do need. Farmers are subject to many variables that are out of their control so this flexibility of having the ability to change areas under each option within the agreement is a welcome addition.
The area to be mindful of, is these changes happen at your annual declaration - a year on from when you sign up, so be sure you do so a time that makes sense when you will know the changes you need to make to fit into your next cropping plan. Perhaps October/November, or the spring is a good time to take full advantage of the ability to make alterations within your next cropping plan.
The new 'pick and mix' approach to SFI offers intriguing stacking options that enable farms to experiment with new techniques, such as combining cover crops with spring cash crops grown alongside companions. This approach has various benefits, including nurturing a diverse soil fauna for extended periods. These benefits extend to improved drainage, workability, nutrient cycling, and more efficient use of expensive farm inputs, positively impacting crop production.
The popular stewardship grazing option GS4 now has an equivalent in SFI that is less prescriptive, increasing the chances of meeting the plant criteria for three years or more within an SFI agreement. This is a win-win, as it allows for greater grazing diversity when the right species are chosen, while also saving money on unnecessary additional establishments. These are important considerations for farm profitability.
For tenant farms, the process is simplified; they no longer need to complete landlord consent forms. Instead, they have the flexibility to exit SFI if contract changes occur (as they occasionally do). This provides tenant farmers with a hassle-free opportunity to get involved, even if only short-term benefits are realised.
The max £1000 agreement management fee (or £20/ha up to 50ha) is a good addition to incentivise an application and to take the edge off the potential hassle of being asked to submit evidence such as photos and SOM (soil organic matter) data at some point in the 3 year agreement. It is worth saying however that some of the options such as the Soil Management Plan (SAM1) would not be worth considering financially if it wasn’t for this.
An area I hope will be reviewed and subsequently changed is the undervaluation of writing a useful and meaningful soil management plan, the key here is the time needed for it to be useful and meaningful to the farm and the way soil within fields need to be managed to improve its natural abilities to support a farm.
The soil management planning option in SFI (SAM1) simply pays a farmer for the organic matter sample (the short term bit DEFRA are interested in) it doesn’t fund or even part fund the time it takes to do something useful with that data to improve it for not only the farm benefit but society as a whole. Improving a soils organic matter will increase that soils ability to hold more water, nutrients and carbon, benefitting among other areas climate change and flood mitigation that benefits us a society.
Let’s not just take a sample and tick a box, lets do something meaningful that will deliver a difference.