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Video: Farming Forum Q&A

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Farmers were invited to put their questions to Defra’s Janet Hughes and David Kennedy at a recent Q&A session hosted by The Farming Forum.

Janet is Programme Director of the Future Farming and Countryside Programme. David is Director General for Food, Farming and Biosecurity.

The session was hosted by Farming Forum director, Clive Bailye.

A video of the session and transcript are published below.

Clive: Hello and welcome to the second Farming Forum Defra ELMs question time. I'm Clive Bailye and as was the case last time, we're joined online today by David Kennedy who is Director General for Food, Farming, Animal and Plant health. This time however David is also joined by Janet Hughes, the Program Director for the Future Farming and Countryside program. So, I think if I hand over  to David and Janet to introduce themselves a bit further and maybe briefly summarize any progress  of ELMs since we last spoke and then we'll jump  in with the selection of questions I've got from  Farming Forum members. So, David if you want to go first perhaps?


David: Yes, thank you very much Clive. I am David Kennedy, I am Director General of Food, Farming and Biosecurity. As Clive says, a lot of my time is spent on the farming sector and we've got two objectives for the sector. We talked about those before, we want to boost productivity, improve profitability and we want to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. And we've designed our whole approach around that I think progress since last time we've got an agriculture bill that's  been approved by parliament, we've put out our Agricultural Transition plan we can talk a bit  more about that today, but we are looking forward  actually to a period of deep engagement with  farmers right across the sector as we get to a detailed implementation plan for the reforms over  the next months and years. I'll hand over to Janet to introduce herself, so Janet.


Janet: Hi everybody,  I'm Janet Hughes, I am the Program Director for the Future Farming and Countryside Program here in Defra, and that means that my full-time job, my life's purpose for the next 7 years is going to be delivering the Agricultural  Transition plan that David mentioned and making  sure that we do that in a way that achieves those outcomes that David mentioned and that really  works for farmers. And I am very much looking forward to the conversation today into a year of us revealing more details about what we're going to be doing, getting even more deeply involved in  co-designing with farmers to design the future of what we're going to be doing and learning and adapting as we go which is our mantra in the programme.


Clive: Right, so let's get straight into these questions then and the first one is from a member called Tepapa on the forum and a nice simple question, are you going to take inflation into account in the payment calculations?


David: The answer is yes, we will pay an amount that covers costs and builds in a margin as well  and obviously if prices are going up, we will have to reflect that in what we pay to farmers  otherwise nobody's going to join our schemes. We want to get as wide an uptake as possible and we will make the schemes attractive in that respect.


Clive: Okay, straight into second one then, so given the ELMs is likely to be about delivering public goods not deliverable by the market, will Defra properly value these goods and move away from the current income for gone method of agri-environment payment calculation and reward farmers fairly for the goods and services we are led to believe the public want? And that's from Bill the Bass Cumbria farmer. Janet maybe you want to go with that one?


Janet: Yeah, so the Secretary of State made really clear last year, when we  published the Agriculture Transition plan that he does intend to move away from the current way of calculating payments and that we recognize that that's not seen as a fair reward and that it doesn't work in all farm settings either and so we are looking at a range of different options about how we calculate the way that we pay for the public goods that are produced and we will keep that under review throughout the pilot that we're about to launch this year, so we will be starting from a position of using income forgone as the way of calculating, but we will then through the pilot keep testing and exploring other ways of doing this so that we can arrive at the fairest possible way of doing it. It is complicated because at one end of the spectrum  you could say ‘let's pay people for outcomes’ and on the face of it that sounds like a kind of exciting possibility, but when you look at that in the detail it's really difficult to make it  work in a way that's actually fair and it's beset with all kinds of other problems that you don't  get from the income forgone and costs model. So, it's not it's not straightforward to do this,  but we do really recognize the points that many have made about the need to make sure that the reward is fair and attractive so that we can make sure lots of people want to participate and they get fairly rewarded for the public goods that they produce.


Clive: Yeah I think it's  quite a good point raised actually, I think if we're really serious as an industry and Defra serious about actually really driving changes, particularly from an environmental point of view, there's got to be positive incentive there isn't for farmers to make a change.


David: Of course, yes, we know that there is decent uptake of current agri-environment schemes, but we  want much wider uptake of the Sustainable Farming Incentive for example, and part of getting that increase that it will be the payment rates and we'll have more to say on that when we consult on the Sustainable Farming Incentive which will be in the next several months, so watch this space.


Clive: Okay, the next question perhaps, based on a bit of previous history and previous form, member Zero from Yorkshire asks whatever scheme we end up with can you please get a few farms  to do a dry run to make sure the inevitable new computer system works okay, all information can be inputted okay and the system can cope with things like common land grazing where the same  area is listed on multiple applications. I think perhaps that's referring back to past problems with computer systems so...


Janet: I have been spending a lot of time learning about what's not  worked in the past both in schemes that Defra has introduced and others around government and the question is absolutely hitting the nail on the head that we can't just suddenly reveal a great big new system without having properly tested it and then expect to see it work. So, the way that we're going to approach this is we're going to incrementally improve what we've got and swap in  new components in a gradual incremental wave throughout the seven years, so that there won't be  a kind of big bang moment where we suddenly crank the handle onto a whole new system, but instead  we will gradually do this through a test and learn approach and one of the principles that we've actually put in the Agriculture Transition Plan is testing and learning and adapting as we go, so that we're setting things up so that when we inevitably do find problems with our systems, which we will because all systems have problems, we'll be able to quickly repair them and we'll  be able to understand what's going wrong and rapidly respond and repair and I'm aware though,  that these promises have been made to farmers before and farmers have very long memories  and we are building on a past in which people remember us making promises like this before and  not keeping them and so I really encourage farmers to keep telling us what's working and what isn't,  keep contacting us getting in touch letting us know and we will demonstrate to you over time our commitment to learning and improving as we go and making sure what we're doing really does work  in real life for farmers because if it doesn't we can't achieve any of our outcomes and we very much  recognize that fact.


Clive: Next question, so how are you going to ensure the scheme will hit the ground running when it comes online and payments will be made in a timely and correct manner? This member using the name Poncherello from Oxfordshire said that they had their last HLS payment 12 months late and then 6 months later had to pay back over half of it which did nothing for business planning or their mental health. So yeah, David do you wanted to have a go at that one?


David: Clive let me come back on that and I've been responsible for Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship for the last couple of years as I've moved from NE to RPA.  And it was taking two years to deal with claims and that is obviously unacceptable. We've made a lot of progress, we've got that cycle down to a year, but we need to make more progress. I know there are some people who are still outstanding after a long period particularly complex claims, so you know really important issue, we've worked very hard to improve it, we've made progress, we will make more progress. I think for the schemes going forward,  we are going to learn the lessons again and we're going to design these in a different way anyway,  so Sustainable Farming Incentive, we're not going to be looking at the annual claim with  a load of processing that takes ages for us to go through and we have to have a back and forth with the farmer. None of that will be part of the SFI design, so the emphasis will be on, you have signed up to deliver a particular standard on soils, on hedges, on boundaries and we will pay you promptly and continuously for doing that. I think the presumption will be as well, a lot of this is about checking. The presumption will be you are doing more you've signed up to. We will pay you on that basis. Now we are going to have to build in some assurance into the scheme, but it will be light touch and again, the bureaucracy, the pedantry,  the heavy-handed inspections that people will know from agri-environment, that is not going to be part of the future approach.


Clive: That's good to hear, so maybe a little less red tape getting in the way of payments reaching the bank accounts they should do really.


David: A lot less red tape, not a little less. As I say we're stripped somehow, but we're a bit bound by the legislative design of the Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship. We are a lot freer in the way we will design the Sustainable Farming Incentives, so it will be avoiding bureaucracy, unless it is absolutely necessary. Keep it to a minimum, that's the rule.


Clive: And just while we're within that kind of that area, subject the policing of these schemes David, there's been a lot of fear recently on the forum and a few threads farmers talking about worried that existing assurance such as Red Tractor and some of these third-party contractors maybe you know involved as Defra's  kind of subcontract police force enforcing, you know and assuring a lot of these things are done, is there any truth in that? Or is it going to be left to the statutory organization such as the EA and effort to police that people are doing what they're supposed to be doing?


David: Yeah, I wouldn't use the word police actually, I think that gives the wrong impression that isn't the dynamic we are trying to establish with the new scheme. Again it will be partnership with farmers and we will start from an assumption that you've signed up to do something and you are doing it or at least doing your best to do that. On the assurance, there's different options so yeah, we can have RPA inspectors albeit working in a much more pragmatic and outcome-focused way, we can use technologies as we are doing increasingly, so that we don't have to have on-farm visits.  We can ask for farmers to hold evidence and that's one of the things we're considering and there may be a role for the Red Tractors the leaves the wildlife trusts. I say there may  be a role, it is something we are considering, I don't think we've got any firm plans there and we're really interested actually to engage with farmers and see what they think about that you  know what is the role there if any.


Clive: The next question really is, it can be something it's quite a long question, but can be summarized quite easily, it's the million-dollar question from Holwellcourtfarm, when will we start to see some indication of payment rates on offer?


David: We will consult in the next several months on Sustainable Farming Incentives and as part of that we will talk about the approach to payments there.


Janet: We've committed and just to add,  we've committed in the Agricultural Transition plan that we would publish details of Sustainable Farming Incentive payment rates for 2022 by June this year and so that's what we'll do we're working on that now, but as David says there'll be some discussion and engagement before then about how that's going to work much earlier in the year we'll be publishing details of this pilot for  Sustainable Farming Incentive, but I wouldn't read too much into that as to what the future  will look like beyond the pilot because the pilot rates and the pilot approach is the starting point for the pilot not the ending point for the SFI 2022 scheme or beyond. So, it's June this year that we'll be publishing more information about payment rates for Sustainable Farming Incentive and then slightly later for the schemes that are coming on later in 2024 and beyond. It's worth just saying that I get asked this question a lot in the conversations I have  with farmers and we do know that farmers need to know this information in order to be able to plan and that there are long planning cycles involved and we absolutely understand that and are working hard to get the information to you as quickly as we can so that you can plan.


Clive: Okay, right so the next question is from a member username Cornish farmer,  he feels there's been very little mention of food production in in ELMs so he asks, with the uptake of ELMs this will reduce agricultural production from a country that already isn't self-sufficient.  Will this leak to increase imports from countries with higher carbon footprint and  lower environmental and welfare standards than the UK and how will you explain that to the public?


David: Short answer is no. We will not be importing more from countries who do not have high environmental standards. I think if you look at the Agricultural Transition plan, there was a big focus on food in that, we want to support increased productivity, increased profitability and sustainable farming. All of that is consistent with maintaining and increasing  the level of domestic food production relative to food consumption in this country, so it's  not the intention to be offshoring production, but there is a question over land use change  in the context of the Environmental Land Management scheme. We will work through that over time, but I think the fundamental principle is that we want to support sustainable food production this is land sharing, not land sparing is absolutely wired into our whole approach.


Clive: Yeah, I guess the fear here is that you know, ELMs does fantastic things for our own kind of you know the UK environment and we're all doing the right things, but of course we just push the problems to South America and other countries you know and actually make the bigger picture that we don't get the environmental gains that we need globally rather than just locally.


David: No, of course and look, it would be totally shooting ourselves in the foot if we had trade deals, for example with Latin America that resulted in increased imports of beef and chopping down of rainforests in order to feed the cattle over there, you know we will absolutely avoid that situation through design of our domestic policy and our trade policy and it's really important to note that we completely join up the way we think about domestic policy and trade so, free trade agreements we are very much thinking, we have an agricultural transition and the free trade agreements have to respect the fact that transition is is underway.


Clive: Janet, did you want to add to that?


Janet: I was going to say a couple of things, one is that the premise of the question seems to be that you have to choose between doing  nature friendly or sustainable farming and being productive and I think we don't we don't accept that dichotomy as a kind of binary choice, so you either do one or the other and there are plenty  examples in this country and others of people who maintain their production and also produce more public goods. And there's a mindset shift here to be thinking about instead of thinking you can either do things that are nice for the environment or you can be productive, we want the notion of  productivity to include producing public goods, as well as producing food so you have natural capital on your farm. There's a range of things that you can produce including food and you can do that in more sustainable ways without reducing your profitability and in fact there are plenty of examples of farmers who have adopted more methods and improved their product profitability, so there's a sort of distinction there between production and productivity if you think productivity is about profit margin for the farm, you can increase your profit margin by reducing your costs from reducing your inputs, by allowing natural processes to happen, so that you don't have to have such expensive vet fees, for example and there are lots of examples  about this. Neil Heseltine is a great example in West Yorkshire where he reduced the size of his sheep flock by three quarters and he now says that he works less and he makes more money and his life  is better as a result and so there are plenty of examples like that around that show that it's not just a straight choice between environment and food production in the way that sometimes it's presented. Yeah I couldn't agree more, I mean it's fundamentally that my own farm business here the changes we've made here over the last 15 years to a regenerative agriculture type system, yeah it's been very much a clear-cut case of what's made sense for the environment, has actually made sense for a bottom line as well so exactly and my primary motivation you know wasn't just wasn't to save the planet, it was more about exactly you know making a viable business first and foremost and it's just nice that it provides us public goods as well and you see.


Janet: Exactly, I was talking to a farmer about this only yesterday, he was saying exactly the same thing about his farm and every farmer I speak to who has adopted these regenerative or agro-ecological type approaches says the same thing they might they've started for reasons of productivity and then they've noticed  these additional nature benefits and they really enjoy having both of those things on their farm and lots of farmers do really enjoy that and miss having those things on their farm that they remember from when they were children and so this is not about kind of challenging  the kind of traditional thinking about farming in a way it's about returning to more traditional ways of thinking about farming and ways of doing it isn't it?


Clive: Right, we'll move on to the next question because I know we're limited for time a little bit and it's from a farmer in Shropshire Hampton, he asks is it possible to tailor the ELMs to regions rather than have a one size fits all scheme? He feels at the moment from what he's seen there are lots of options for an East Anglia arable farmer, but barely any for a livestock farmer or a mixed farmer so will there be more of a regional approach or is this going to be very much a national scheme?


Janet: This is a really important question, I'll kind of lead off on this, then David can correct me and I was talking to some farmers from the Litchfield Rugeley and Tamworth branch of  the NFU the other evening, had a very interesting conversation with them. They were telling me about the particular issues in their region because lots of their farms surround city areas and they face particular issues because of that, they face particular issues to do with flooding  and there's lots of sort of things that they're concerned about locally and there's two ways that we want to approach this. First of all, in Sustainable Farming Incentive we are trying in that to make sure that we've got very broadly applicable actions that are relevant wherever you are so you can look after your soil wherever you are and there are a range of different actions that you can take you can look after your grassland wherever you are, depending on what assets you've got there are ways that you can look after them in more  environmentally sustainable ways, so we're trying to make sure and we do that through the way that we engage with farmers from different regions and different types of farms to make sure that  this SFI element will actually work across the range of settings, but then in local nature recovery one of the important elements of that is about setting local priorities and then acting on them and so we want to be using that component of the ELM scheme to help people collaborate on setting and understanding local priorities and acting on them so that they can do things which are much more relevant to their particular region.


Janet: David, I don't know whether you think I've missed anything I want to add anything on that?


David: I think you've covered it well Janet.


Clive: Great, so yeah next question is again, it's your second question actually from Holwellcourt farm, I'm very concerned that Defra regularly referred for the need to the need for trusted advisers to facilitate farmer delivery under Elms, do Defra recognize the risk that those advisors  will similarly raise their rates and take advantage of the scheme and if so how do they  intend to avoid such advisers swallowing up an unacceptable portion of the funding  intended to support farmers?


Janet: There's a few things to say about advice. The first one is particularly for Sustainable Farming Incentive but also for the rest of the schemes, we don't think it's right that people have to pay advisers just to fill the forms in for them and that's what currently people have to do because they're so worried about doing it wrong and then getting fined for having done it wrong and it all kind of there's too much risk involved so having  to pay £600-1000 for someone just to fill  the forms in and that that's not right. We need to design our new systems so that it's possible for farmers to do that bit themselves and as long as they've got a computer or a phone or a tablet they should be able to fill the forms in themselves and not have to get advice on it, having said that the farmers will probably want advice on what's best to do for their farm, what is the best what's the best way to use this particular piece of  land or that particular piece of land, is it suitable to plant trees here or to re-wiggle the beck or whatever it is that they want to do on their particular farm and that probably that will be more of a paid-for set of advice and we're looking through the pilot actually and through our ELM tests and trials what the requirement is for that kind of advice and what the best sources are for farmers to get it. It's worth saying also though, that we're thinking the third thing to say about this is that we're looking at how we use our workforce of inspectors and advisers and how we can move the emphasis of what they do from box ticking inspection type activities to more advisory supportive type activities, so one example of that is the Catchment Sensitive Farming scheme where we provide advice to people about diffuse water pollution everyone I speak to about that regards it very highly the evidence is that it's very effective in helping farmers to do effective things and efficient things on their lands to reduce diffuse water pollution and so we're looking at how, is that model scalable to other areas and other types of advice as well so there'll be a mixed economy, there will be some advice that's paid for but it won't be necessary  to get advice just to fill the forms in. It will be possible for you to decide yourself what do I want to do on my farm, what should the plan look like and how do I now interact with Defra in order to get paid to produce the public goods that I've decided I want to do.


Clive: Next question is from Simon Charles, a farmer from the Kent/Surry border he's someone I know actually, and has been practicing regen agriculture no-till for quite a number of years, very head of the curve on that very innovative farmer and his concern is that a lot of the changes he's implemented that have produced those you know positive public goods and wildlife changes and improvements to carbon sequestration etc, on his farm that will now be rewarded for people making changes, he worries that people that have already been doing this for a number of years already will be penalized kind of innovation won't be rewarded and actually it could encourage people like him to maybe plough up the whole farm and start again so we can make the gains all over again which obviously would be a very silly thing to do, but if we create a system or we create a system that encourages that um so he's looking for some assurance really that will he be rewarded for what he's already been doing for the last 20 years or so?


David: We can give that assurance, absolutely, there's a classic debate about do you pay people for change or do you pay people to achieve outcomes? And the environmental land management approach is very much the latter so we're interested in outcomes for all the good things that your farmer is doing with his soils for example or her soils, then they will be able to opt into the soil standard of the Sustainable Farming Incentive and be paid for that. So, they won't be penalized for all the good things they have done already they will be rewarded for that.


Clive: Great and likewise just to add that capital grants  that may or may not feature within the in the scheme, do you think to some extent that they can penalize again the innovator, you know they devalue the second-hand machinery, they inflate the new machinery prices, to some extent they can distort and be away that and that those guys that  have already been there and got out there and done these things because they've made sense and not  for subsidy reasons only, how do you how do you avoid that when you're designing a scheme?


David: So I think that that's a tricky one you know for people who've already invested in capital, then  that there will be grants for people who need to make that investment going forward and  Sustainable Farming Incentive, for example is very much around  we will make payments for achieving outcomes and grants will be available to support  the actions required to drive those outcomes. I think in terms of incentives, I mean we don't want to be to be giving grants and people just taking the money and investing in stuff that really they don't need, but there are there mitigations in place for that, so for example, there is a significant contribution required by the farmer to any investment that is grant supported so the main thing we are doing is paying for achievement of outcomes there will  be some grants available for those who need it but they will have to co-contribute towards that and we think the incentives are in the right place there.


Clive: Final question really, it's a very simple one just to finish off on, and just simply asks will ELMs include a simple permanent pasture payment?


Janet: To be decided, exactly what the payments are, like I said we'll publish some details about that before June for Sustainable Farming Incentive but I think what probably what's behind the question, I'm going to guess what's behind the question because it's quite a straightforward question, but I think it's about the fact that we have previously undervalued the contribution of permanent pasture to things like carbon sequestration and the types of actions that you can take on permanent pasture to improve carbon sequestration like long rotation grazing  where I've seen some great examples of that that have really increased biodiversity, increased soil carbon, increased soil absorption rates and all of that kind of stuff, so if that's where the question is coming from, then do be assured that we are very much looking at those types of actions and we're looking at grassland as a as an asset within the Sustainable Farming Incentive to see what actions can we can we say farmers should take on that land that would make it more sustainable.  So, I don't know whether that answers I don't know whether I've guessed correctly where the question is coming from I hope I have and if so that's the answer!


Clive: Yeah, I think that probably is the hidden line behind that really this is what they're getting on that so…David, anything to add to that?


David: I think to add to that we're considering a set of standards that  cover the set of assets that all different farmers types have across the country and I  think there'll be something for everyone in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and we will  address those issues that for example Countryside Stewardship doesn't have the coverage that it that it might, that is very much one of the design principles of the new scheme, so something for everybody, all the different types of farmers, all the different parts of the country.


Clive: Okay great, well thank you very much, that covers that that's the ten questions that that were selected or covered hopefully people will be happy with your answers, I think you've answered them all really quite well. It's great to hear you know personally that you obviously seem so enthusiastic about it all really and are so keen to work directly with farmers and as you said Janet get under the bonnet of what's really going on.


Janet: Thank you very much thanks a lot for having us.


A cornerstone of The Agricultural Transition plan is the Environmental Land Management scheme. To help inform this scheme, we consulted the public on how it could work. We are very grateful to everyone who responded. A summary of those responses can be found on GOV.UK.


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