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The new Sustainable Farming Incentive 

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Sustainable Farming Incentive
Source: Natural England

At NFU21, The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, spoke about the Sustainable Farming Incentive.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive is the first in a package of environmental land management schemes, which will provide a straightforward way for farmers to get paid for producing public goods. These include cleaner water, cleaner air and carbon reduction. 

Through the Sustainable Farming Incentive, farmers will be paid for environmentally sustainable actions – ones that are simple to do and that don’t require previous experience in agri-environment schemes. For example, we might pay farmers to manage and plant hedgerows to provide year-round food, shelter and breeding cover for birds and insects. 

We’ll start to pilot the Sustainable Farming Incentive this year with an initial group of several hundred farmers. Then, in March 2022, we will start to roll out the scheme to recipients of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). 

As we roll out the Sustainable Farming Incentive, we will make changes and improvements as we go – learning both from the piloting and the scheme roll-out itself.

How the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot will work 

We’ll launch the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot in October 2021. Next month, you’ll be able to express an interest in taking part. The launch document can be viewed on GOV.UK. 

The Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot will build on what we’re learning through the tests and trials, which started in 2018. 

Tests and trials focus on trying out individual parts of the future scheme, like land management plans or different payment methods – whereas the pilot will test working version of the scheme from start to finish. Think of a manufacturer designing a new car – they might test things like the brakes and gearbox separately (tests and trials), before combining them into a driveable car for road testing (piloting). 

We want the Sustainable Farming Incentive to be straightforward enough that a farmer can make an application and start their agreement just by using guidance on GOV.UK. An important point of piloting will be to test whether this is true in practice, and we will adjust the scheme design based on what we learn. 

Who’s eligible for the pilot 

We’d like to involve several hundred farmers in the first phase of the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot, from a range of farm types from across England. 

For the first phase of piloting, a farmer is only eligible if they:  

  • are a recipient of the Basic Payments Scheme, registered on the Rural Payments Agency system 
  • enter land parcels (fields) into the pilot that do not have an existing agri-environment agreement on them 
  • have management control of the land for the duration of the pilot. They must either own the land with management control or have a tenancy of enough length to implement their pilot agreement (including landlord’s permission if required) 
  • enter land parcels that are in England  
  • enter land parcels that are not common land  

Later, we’re planning to extend eligibility to include farmers who aren’t eligible for, or don’t claim, BPS. We also might add specific farm types not eligible for the first phase, like farms on common land. 

How to take part 

In March 2021, we’ll invite farmers to submit expressions of interest in taking part in the pilot. You’ll just need to complete a short, simple online form to do this. 

Once we have enough expressions of interest, we will invite farmers from a mix of farms and locations to make a pilot application. If we’re oversubscribed, we’ll select farmers at random instead.  

People who have been invited to apply will then need to prepare their full application. If they’re eligible, they will then enter into a pilot agreement. 

The first agreements will go live in October 2021.  

We’ll publish more information about the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot next month (March 2021).

Then, by June, we’ll publish information about how the scheme itself will work, including what farmers can get paid for and how much.  

We will talk about these things here, so don’t forget to subscribe to this blog if you haven’t already, and sign up to Defra’s e-alerts too.  You can also read the speech given by George Eustice at NFU21.

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  1. Comment by Paul Hayward posted on

    Going forward when the Sustainable Farming Incentive is fully available is it still not available to those with existing stewardship agreements? If this is the case it is a penalty for those who have made previous improvements to the public goods on the farm. In addition it is a deterrent to renewing existing schemes. I look forward to clarification.

  2. Comment by Jess Everett posted on

    Hi Paul, thanks for your comment. Farmers can take part in the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot and / or the scheme itself if they have existing stewardship agreements. However, they can’t have different agreements on the same parcels of land.

    In other words, a farmer could have some land parcels in the pilot / scheme, and other parcels in stewardship agreements – just not the same parcels in both.

    That’s because we’re adopting a principle of ‘no double payments’. So we won’t pay someone for doing a land management action if they’re being paid for doing the same thing, in the same place, under another scheme.

    I hope that helps to clarify it, but please let me know if you’re still not sure. Jess

    • Replies to Jess Everett>

      Comment by Rebecca Hughes posted on

      Could you simply reduce/suspend the Mid Tier payments? This would enable farmers who are engaged with agri-environment to continue to participate in the Pilot without double funding?
      The most appropriate fields for agri-environment measures will probably already be in one - by limiting eligibility you are narrowing the pool of farmers who will engage, and biasing your SFI pilot towards possibly unsuitable land, or non-optimal land for agri-environment. RPA systems should be able to cope with funding calculations, they did before with greening...

      • Replies to Rebecca Hughes>

        Comment by Tom Lewis posted on

        Hello Rebecca - great comment. We are designing our SFI standards to be ultimately applicable across all types of farmland, not just land that has historically been in different agri-environment schemes (as important as that land is).

        We will be publishing more information about those pilot SFI standards really soon - and it would be great to get your views when we do. You can do that here on the blog or if you want to take part in co-design activity, email

        Thanks, Tom.

  3. Comment by Ann Owen posted on

    Again, small organic market gardens will miss out while large, wealthy farms will be raking it in. Does it never end?

    • Replies to Ann Owen>

      Comment by Tom Lewis posted on

      Hello Ann. Thanks for your comment. We have chosen to start the SFI pilot with an eligibility set that is based on those who currently receive BPS. We do appreciate that some farmers have not been able to apply for or receive BPS in the past - and we are looking to broaden out eligibility in the future.

      The pilot is part of our wider learning work - for example we have tests and trials looking at horticulture and market gardening and how we best work with those farmers and growers in the future.

      • Replies to Tom Lewis>

        Comment by Ann Owen posted on

        Thanks for your reply Tom. Does this mean that you will actually go and talk to those market gardens and farms that have been delivering these public goods for many years as part of their growing model? Those holdings that have increased biodiversity, planted trees and hedges and reduced tillage because they recognised the importance of these actions for the benefit of future generations. Will their advice be sought and more importantly, will some recognition be finally given to the fact that they did not outsource their environmental costs as "externalities", but accepted less profit in favor of greater sustainability? Apologies for the cynical tone, but 25 years in the sector have made me thus.

        • Replies to Ann Owen>

          Comment by Tom Lewis - Defra posted on

          Hello Ann. In a nutshell - yes. We want to learn as much as possible from as many people as possible. The SFI pilot is real step forward in terms of our learning, design and development of our new schemes, buts it's not the only way we are working with and talking to people. Anyone who wants to share their insight or learn more can get in touch with our co-design team: We'll blog more about what we learn from those conversations here and post opportunities for people to get involved too.

  4. Comment by Jonathan Atkinson posted on

    why doesn't this incentive text read; These include cleaner water, cleaner air, healthy soils and carbon reduction. We need to get soil carbon and soil health sorted under regenerative agriculture if we are to have any real scope of dealing with carbon reduction as well as dealing with NFM, water quality and agricultural air emissions under these schemes surely.

    • Replies to Jonathan Atkinson>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for your comment. You're right, soil is an important capital resource and even though it isn't called out explicitly out in this post, it is a priority. The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan states that England’s soils must be managed sustainably by 2030 and steps must be taken towards restoring the UK’s soils. In addition to the work carried out by our colleagues at the Environment Agency, we're including soil health in the SFI. In 2022, the Sustainable Farming Incentive will pay participants for delivering some of the foundational elements of environmentally-sustainable farming. The initial focus will be on soil management, integrated pest management, nutrient management and livestock management.

  5. Comment by David posted on

    Positive to see this being launched and good to have regular communication on the SFI through this blog and other media. Its regrettable however that farms with land in existing schemes are barred from participation and in particular those with older HLS / UELS schemes which are whole farm approaches. This excludes large numbers of farms in the uplands and potentially denudes the pilot of the views of those that have experienced several schemes (ESA's, HLS, ELS etc. ) and may be valued critical friends in shaping a scheme fit for purpose. Good to know that DEFRA is committed to co-design but that process needs to continue to evolve quickly to maintain engagement and interest levels.

    • Replies to David>

      Comment by Tom Lewis posted on

      Hi David - thanks for your comment. Yes you are correct that where there is an existing whole farm agreement you won't be able to join this pilot - that is in part because we want to keep this pilot as simple as possible for all concerned.

      Those farmers who have part farm agreements (like Countryside Stewardship) will of course be able to join the SFI pilot on those bits of their farm not in an agreement. And those farmers who only receive BPS can of course have a pilot agreement across much more of their land.

      This pilot is part of a wider set of activity learning about how best to design and deliver that wide range of environmental land management schemes. We do intend to pilot our other schemes - and will look at ways to work with those experienced HLS cohort as well as any newly eligible farmers and land managers.

      Please do get in touch again if you think there are ways to tap into that engagement and interest as we don't want to miss any opportunities.

  6. Comment by Robert Wolton posted on

    To what extent do you envisage payments being based on results, or outcomes, rather than on prescriptions being followed? For example, with hedgerows will payments be based on the presence of flowers or berries, or on stretches of hedges being left uncut? The standard seems to suggest both approaches are being taken.... My hope is that the payments will be based on results.

    • Replies to Robert Wolton>

      Comment by Tom Lewis posted on

      Hi Robert

      Thanks for the question. Payments for this Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot will be based on a standard set of actions being delivered by farmers taking part.

      We have certainly not ruled out using a more focussed payments by result approach in the future. This is something we are currently investigating through our tests and trials programme.

      In this pilot participants can choose which standards they want to do, plus whether to apply them to all the relevant land on their farm or only some of it. The hedgerow standard is one of eight standards available for farmers in this pilot, under this standard we offer three different ambition levels for the farmer to choose from: Introductory for £16m/100m, Intermediate for £21/100m and Advanced for £24/100m. As the payments increase so do the requirements for how the farmer manages their hedge.

      The driving feature behind our future environmental land management schemes is that we want to entrust participants to make the most appropriate decisions regarding their own land. We intend to focus any monitoring on the quality and outcomes of work, rather than the largely quantitative checks used under previous schemes. So we certainly want to see results being achieved - and as set out above we're using our tests and trials to understand how we best incentivise and encourage those results.

      For more information, have a look at our latest Policy Paper on our piloting of the Sustainable Farming Incentive at

      If you have any more thoughts or ideas please drop us line at

      Thanks, Tom

  7. Comment by Robert Wolton posted on

    Thanks Tom for this helpful reply. I am pleased to read that the tests and trials programme is exploring a results-led approach. Many members of the Devon Hedge Group, which I chair, feel this is the way forward. As it stands, the pilot is largely going down the route of previous agri-environment schemes which have often not delivered the desired outcomes for hedge health. Only the terminology has really changed. The desire to focus monitoring on outcomes is welcome, but in practice it seems likely that compliance will be assessed against agreed actions. Kind regards, Rob.

  8. Comment by Claire D posted on

    Dear all, this initiative is excellent and I would like to get the word spread to a larger community.

    Would one of you be happy to give a short talk presenting this incentive and participate in a discussion panel during a webminar organised by the Agrifood science early career commitee of SCI? it is a free webminar and we aim to present wonderful initiative for better sustainable farming and food supply in the UK.

    thanks 🙂

  9. Comment by Roger Berry posted on

    Hi Tom,
    Will signing up for an environmental land management scheme affect eligibility for Agricultural Property Relief?
    Best regards,

  10. Comment by Marta posted on

    Good afternoon,

    I trust you're doing well? Could you provide information on the percentage of British farmers participating in sustainable farming practices? I'm interested in understanding the current statistics and whether sufficient efforts are underway to promote and support this crucial endeavour. Sustainable farming is vital for the well-being of future generations, the health of our population, and the welfare of both humans and animals alike. I'm willing to invest more in products that are guaranteed to be sustainably produced. Currently, I'm exploring options for sustainable farmers in Yorkshire. While I've come across farm shops, I'm skeptical about their sustainability practices. I've found a few organic farms, but I'm keen on broader initiatives that prioritise sustainability. It would be greatly appreciated if this issue were taken seriously and actively promoted.

    • Replies to Marta>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi Marta,

      Thanks for getting in touch and sharing your interest in our work. Sustainable farming is something we take very seriously. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), one of our new environmental land management schemes, pays farmers to take environmentally friendly-actions as they produce food. This year, there will be 50 new actions that farmers can carry out as part of their agreement (they can choose whatever works on their farm). Since it launched last year, we've undertaken - and continue to carry out - our plan to engage farmers, land managers, growers and the wider farming sector in the scheme. We go to ag shows, conferences, auction marts in person and we host webinars and roundtable discussions across the sector and with stakeholders. The blog also helps!

      The Agricultural Transition Plan on GOV.UK is a good place to start. It was updated this year (

      Although much has progressed since initial publication, it gives an overview of the ambition for sustainable farming practices in England. So far, 17,000 farmers in England have applied for Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) agreements so far.

      The Environmental Improvement Plan is worth a look too.

      Best wishes,

      • Replies to Sarah Stewart>

        Comment by Marta Koziol posted on

        Hello Sarah,

        Thank you for your response, that is good to hear 😊

        Best regards


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