SFI 2021 pilot – Alasdair Squires’ blog

28/10/22 DEFRA are conducting site surveys around the country to offer assistance and advice to participants whilst also checking for any compliance issues.  As stated at the start of the pilot this is more about helping and understanding why these issues arose rather than penalising and applying penalties. If your farm is inspected, use it as an opportunity to ask questions and gain some insight into what the RPA are looking for, both on the ground and in terms of feedback. We have found it useful to go over the participant’s pilot diary with the inspector as this is an area where there is often a lack of clarity in exactly what information is required. It is also a good opportunity to review whether the specific standards are working for you. At the end of each participating year there is the chance to add more land or adjust standards whilst if another standard is proving troublesome to implement it may be necessary to lower the ambition level.
9/8/22 Ongoing webinars, surveys and questionnaires are collating a range of feedback to assist in the rollout of the SFI to the wider farming populace. These have included Integrated Pest Management Workshops, Nutrient management workshops and more. Participants who were accepted at an early stage should be aware that their Annual Declaration that all mandatory actions have been carried out will need to be submitted by 30th September.
5/7/22 SFI 2022 has opened for applications. From 30th June the scheme was made available to the wider farming populace, there is no closing date at the time of writing with agreements intended to be as flexible as possible. Like the pilot, payments will be made on a quarterly basis with options to add both parcels and standards as an agreement progresses. There are three standards available; Arable and horticultural soils, Improved grassland soils and Moorland. There will also be an Animal Health and Welfare payment separate to the above standards. This will pay for an annual vet visit with differing payments based on livestock type. At first there will only be an Introductory and Intermediate ambition level with an advanced to follow. A wider array of standards will be introduced in future years.
22/6/22 All participants, except those who were accepted among last few agreements, will have received their first quarterly payment. General feedback has been positive in that this method helps with cash flow compared to the traditional annual payments. Applications have also been accepted for relevant capital items (something not yet available for the wider 2022 rollout). Whilst this is subject to change, it followed very similar process and guidance to that of Countryside Stewardship.
24/1/22 The RPA have announced the first set of feedback webinars starting this month. They have also provided further information on the type of farm business management plan which will be used as a way of monitoring the progress of SFI agreements. This will form the basis for DEFRA’s learning and research activities, recording why standards were chosen, how they have been implemented and how DEFRA can provide support in implementing them.
5/01/22 Those who have had an agreement accepted are being encouraged to complete a journal of their experiences during the pilot. This will form part of the required feedback and will record the actions taken and any results along with comments on what has been especially difficult to accomplish and how the scheme can be improved. Not all clients have had agreements offered yet but the RPA have stated that everyone who qualifies will be offered one.
6/12/21 Further details on the wider SFI rollout in 2022 have been released. Payments will rang from £22-58/ha for the two soils standards. Whilst the payments are lower than in the pilot’s equivalent, the actions required are slightly less stringent. We have been show other potential standards that may be released over the next few years including agroforestry, nutrient management and farmland biodiversity. This creates the potential to combine being paid for the SFI with selling ‘environmental produce’ such as carbon on the open marketing, significantly increasing the income received above the baseline payments.
16/11/21 Applicants need to be wary when using the RPA Online maps as a basis for completing claims. If the land use has not been updated recently, you may find land use showing as permanent grassland is actually classed as temporary. This would prevent a parcel from being placed in a low and no input standard until updated.
28/10/21 The first agreements are set to go live in a few days, however despite the pilot starting on 1st November (having been pushed back from 1st October) half of applicants are yet to receive an agreement. The RPA have announced that all will still receive an agreement but these will start from the 1st of the following month from when the offer is accepted. This rather open ended statement means most agreements should be in place by 1st December subject to further delays. When applying for the pilot, clients were expecting to receive their first monthly payments from November, now that payments are quarterly, the first payment many will receive will be March 2022. After a rather inauspicious start to the SFI we hope these issues will be ironed out in time for the wider rollout from spring next year.
22/10/21 We have requested certain agreements be amended before acceptance. Some clients wish to add parcels to the pilot which were in the process of being transferred when the application deadline passed. This is involves rejecting the initial agreement offer then stating the extra parcels to be entered and standards desired. Agreements were expected to go live by the start of November however with half of clients yet to receive an offer, it appears that some agreements will be starting at a later date.
18/10/21 The RPA have provided the first draft agreements of each application for review. So far there have been no amendments to what was initially requested in each application with no applications rejected either. Now is the final opportunity for clients to amend agreements, whether it be adding more parcels or adjusting ambition levels. Whilst the agreements are intended to be flexible, the next opportunity to amend them will be May 2022 at the earliest. Agreements will have to be submitted or amended within 15 days of the offer being made, so decisions must be made quickly.
4/10/21 The next stage involves waiting for agreements to be issued, the RPA state there will be a brief opportunity to amend applications before final confirmation, with the opportunity to add more parcels and standards. Agreements are set to start in November with the first quarterly payment from February.
30/9/21 All our client’s applications have now been submitted, with a wide range of standards and ambition levels selected. Whilst many are excited to provide feedback and be part of shaping the future of sustainable farming, there have been several issues with the application process, whether SBIs not showing up as linked to the scheme or business owners not being given the correct access levels. As we move towards the feedback aspect of the pilot there are concerns over whether these or similar issues will persist. Some clients are wary and now ask us to deal with this aspect of the pilot on their behalf.
25/9/21 With the deadline fast approaching some clients are still deciding whether to submit an application due to concerns over complying with the standards. One of the selling points however, is DEFRA’s stated aim of increased flexibility in terms of adding parcels at a later date and amending standards and ambition levels. DEFRA intend to introduce ways of amending applications from May next year. Put a few parcels that you know can comply with a standard into the pilot, then you have the option of expanding your agreement as you get to grips with it. The RPA will also benefit from more feedback on this amending process before the SFI is opened to the wider farming community.
21/9/21 We have been reported issues to the RPA of land parcels registered on RPA Online as Permanent Grassland not showing up as available when selecting the ‘Low and no input grassland’ standard.
9/9/21 Due to the extended deadline for applications the first agreements will now start from November rather than October as initially planned. Payments will also now be quarterly rather than monthly as was previously intended.
7/9/21 The RPA have informed us there has been an update and everyone on the pilot should now have access to the application tab.
2/9/21 As well as permission levels for the Environmental Land Management tab not being set at the correct levels, some clients are able to start the application only to be told their SBI is not recognised as having been invited onto the pilot. This is despite receiving emails that the application window is open and that now they may apply.
25/8/21 Following feedback, the RPA have extended the application deadline to 30th September. This will allow issues with permission levels to be resolved and provides further opportunity for land parcels to be amended or added to a claim.

An issue has arisen with the application process with almost half of the clients invited to submit an application not given the correct permission levels by the RPA to access the new Environmental Land Management tab on the RPA Online, despite having full permissions for their businesses.

The RPA will not discuss this issue with agents unless the agent also has full business permissions even if we are not asking for permission for ourselves, but simply pointing out that a client ought to have this available. Once a client calls the RPA it can take several days for the issue to be resolved creating unnecessary pressure as the deadline approaches.

19/8/21 The Countryside Stewardship team have told us that removing a parcel from Stewardship and placing it into the Pilot will require the repayment of monies received up to this point, however this will be reviewed on a  case by case basis. This lack of clarity as we approach the submission deadline has created difficult choices for clients who were keen to be involved and reduced the number of parcels they are willing to put forward.
12/8/21 Having completed SFI HEFER reports,  some clients are affected and would require actions like no supplementary feeding of livestock on areas of affected parcels.
2/8/21 DEFRA state that removing parcels from a current Countryside Stewardship agreement to place them in the pilot will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to decide whether the applicant will have to pay back payments made to this date. They have not yet confirmed what the criteria for this will be and we have requested clarification.

We are making decisions on whether it is better to leave certain parcels out of a standard if they have trouble meeting a standard’s requirements.

Some clients have raised concerns for the Low and no input grassland standard about their ability to maintain sward height on parcels let out to graziers.

Other clients are weighing up the benefits of taking a parcel out of stewardship to put in the Pilot. DEFRA have confirmed this is possible by informing both stewardship and SFI Pilot teams of the intention to do so.

There has been slight confusion around the format of multiple ambition levels with different levels of actions required for each standard. Most clients would prefer one option with ‘do this to receive this payment’, it is however a learning curve and other clients appreciate the extra flexibility to reduce or add the trickier actions.

The SFI Pilot opened this month and we have been working with our clients to put together their applications, deciding which standards are best suited to each parcel and discussing what each ‘ambition level’ means in terms of action and reward. Whilst DEFRA aimed to make the process as simple as possible, as with any new scheme, there have been points of uncertainty requiring further clarification. 

The ‘ambition’ levels that clients are willing to go for have been mixed with some wanting to enter at introductory level to keep things simple whilst those who have taken up Countryside Stewardship options in the past have found that in many areas, they are almost complying with requirements already and are happy to go in at an advanced level to maximise payments. 

The required feedback and participation payment has been an incentive to some who are eager to be involved in shaping the SFI. Others viewed the levels of input as too time consuming or technical and have requested us to take the lead in this aspect of the program. Further details of this part of the pilot are eagerly awaited. 

A few questions have been raised at this stage. Some clients have parcels in ongoing Countryside Stewardship agreements and are eager to place these in the pilot as well. Leaving an agreement early normally requires paying back payments received so far, but there was some early discussion on whether this would be waived for the pilot. There is also the problem of the timeframe, with the pilot application deadline being 1st September, would a parcel be removed in time, and would there be any conflict with the application? There is also no confirmed date for when applications are to be made for capital items.  

Overall, the response has been positive with our clients keen to get involved in the pilot. With BPS phasing out under way it makes sense to mitigate some of the financial loss by taking up its replacement as soon as possible. This will also apply to the wider rollout of SFI in 2022 as BPS and SFI are claimable on the same parcels; one popular option so far among our clients is the low and no input grassland standard, gaining them an extra £110/ha with the option of an extra £24/100m for the hedgerow standard if both are at advanced levels.

6/7/21 DEFRA have confirmed that those providing public benefits under an SFI will be able to sell their environmental goods to both government sources and on the open market where companies look to offset their footprint. To this end DEFRA intend to develop and promote private markets for these services. Read More 
1/7/21 So far, we have been involved in the SFI Pilot, which has given us a good idea of what is to follow in further rollouts of SFINow however, we have the first brief details of the 2022 early rollout SFI which will be available for everyone. Read More
30/6/21 The imminent launch of the SFI pilot scheme has provided an idea of what some of the SFI will look like before it is rolled out to the wider farming community. The following information is applicable to the first year of the pilot and may differ i following years. Pilot schemes are for testing and so changes are expected by 2024. Read More
15/3/21 The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) has now opened for expressions of interest, which must be made by the 11th April, to start an agreement in 2022. The payments will be on top of the BPS payment. The SFI is tier one of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Read More