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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Interest in the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme pilot

Copyright Natural England/Julian Dowse

In March, we invited farmers to express interest in taking part in the first Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot. 

In this post, we'd like to share the response and what we’ll do next. 

A quick recap: the Sustainable Farming Incentive is one of 3 new environmental land management schemes, alongside the future Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes. 

These schemes will operate together and pay for actions to support sustainable farming practices alongside profitable food production, improve animal health and welfare, improve environmental outcomes, and reduce carbon emissions. 

As we mentioned in our introductory post, 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. 

Our approach 

We chose to run a simple expressions of interest (EOI) stage as we didn’t know how many farmers would want to join the first phase of piloting.

Our thinking was that if we were undersubscribed, we could find out why and try to generate more interest. If we were oversubscribed, we could intervene and avoid a situation in which farmers wasted time and energy making applications which wouldn’t be successful.

We want to have around 1,000 farmers in the pilot with live agreements in place from this Autumn (2021).


In total, 2,178 farmers expressed an interest in the first phase of the pilot. 

Responses came from a diverse range of farm types and regions. We didn’t settle on a maximum number of pilot participants, and it was great to have received more than we’d hoped. 

Once we gathered the responses, we separated the EOIs into farm types and compared them with our Defra agricultural census data to check their proportional coverage. 

  • 744 applications came from grazing livestock farms 
  • 653 came from mixed farms 
  • 264 came from cereal farms 
  • 263 came from general cropping farms 

The turnout of dairy farms was far more than we expected at 206. From our smaller farm types, we attracted interest from 32 horticulturists and 16 pig and poultry farmers.   

The farm type information was self-selected by participants and it is not a mandatory requirement for farmers to declare this information. However, our analysis shows that:

  • 896 farmers are declared owners/owner-occupiers 
  • 130 farmers are declared tenants 
  • 1152 farmers do not have a declared status 

Regional diversity is important to us and it was reflected in the responses. At this stage, the pilot is only be available for farmers who currently receive payments under the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS), yet we’ve seen a genuinely diverse range across England. 

  • 622 came from the south-west 
  • 345 came from the West Midlands 
  • 300 came from the south-east (including 14 in London) 
  • 217 came from East Anglia 
  • 208 came from the East Midlands 
  • 198 came from Yorkshire 
  • 189 came from the north-west 
  • 92 came from the north-east 

Having a good nationwide coverage means that we can ensure that what we learn from the pilot will be implemented across England. 

Collaboratingwith RPA 

Our delivery partner, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), developed and managed the expression of interest process. 

The RPA team took calls and worked hard to ensure the online experience was a smooth one. If you do have feedback on the process, please do comment below. We want to keep improving the experience people have for future pilots. 

Our next steps 

We plan to invite all those who expressed an interest to work with us, whether or not they choose to proceed to apply for the pilot. 

By inviting all of our EOIs to work with us – we will have the best chance to learn about Sustainable Farming Incentive and achieve our ambition of around 1,000 live pilot agreements from this Autumn. 

Our plan is to contact all these farmers individually to inform them of the outcome of their EOI and invite them to apply in full. We will do this from the end of this month.  The next step for those who we invite into the pilot, will be to develop their more detailed applications, this will be when the standards are chosen and applied to farmers' land. 

We will be publishing information shortly on how to do this, more detail on the standards and more guidance on what will need to be done when and how for this first phase of the pilot. Work building applications will begin in June 2021, leading to the first pilot agreements going live from October 2021. 

Although the window for farmers to express an interest in joining the first phase of the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot is now closed, there will be more opportunities to participate in future phases of the pilot and in our co-design of future schemes. Email if you’d like to get involved.

You can sign-up to Defra e-alerts and subscribe to this blog to stay up-to-date. Through the e-alerts, we will notify you when other scheme pilot opportunities become available. 


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  1. Comment by David posted on

    How many applications did you receive for the pilot?

    • Replies to David>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi David,

      Tom (Lewis) and Lisa (a colleague from the RPA) will publish a post on this next week. I know that along with the application number it'll include a breakdown of types of farms too.



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