Farmers say future agri-environment payment schemes need more flexibility
Ministers want to make public funding dependant on delivering “public goods” – something which many East Anglian farmers are already proudly achieving by going above and beyond their agri-environment agreements. Chris Hill reports.
With so many post-Brexit policy discussions focusing on the environment, advocates of conservation farming said any new scheme must be flexible enough to reward farmers for measures which suit their situation, and to fund local wildlife priorities.
The government’s flagship agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship (CS), has drawn criticism for its complexity, bureaucracy and late payments – but it has helped many farmers fund the creation of wildlife habitats, bird food, and features to reduce pollution.
Among them are Ben Jones, who farms 500 acres near Holt, predominantly growing malting barley for the brewing industry. He is has been in a Mid Tier CS scheme since January 2017, and was in Entry Level Stewardship, CS’s predecessor, for 10 years before that.
His agreement includes nectar flower mixes, supplementary winter feeding, winter bird food mixes, 6m grass margins to stop sediment run-off into the nearby River Glaven and cultivated land for rare arable plants such as cornflower.
In total, 37ha is under stewardship, which is 18pc of his crop area – well over the Mid Tier recommendation of 3-5pc.
But all of this costs money, said Mr Jones.
“One reason that I am so keen on this is because it is important to demonstrate that farmers are not completely commercially-minded and they enjoy doing something for the environment rather than ploughing up every last metre,” he said.
“And if you want to go down the route of support, you need to be seen to be earning it. When it comes to justifying public funding against health or education, the environmental aspect is farming’s leg to stand on.
“But the biggest stumbling block for farmers is the cost of implementing all this. It is not cheap, and we need to be making a profit. These schemes are complicated and competitive, and you get fined for even very small mistakes. That can put a lot of people off. There are delays with the payments, and you can be several thousands of pounds out of pocket for quite a long time.
“Countryside Stewardship is a good scheme that provides a lot of benefit for the environment and we need to be seen to be doing something to look after our natural environment. But it does need to be flexible.”
Abby Maynard is an agricultural business consultant at the Norwich office of Brown and Co, who worked with Mr Jones to develop his Mid Tier scheme.
“Whatever comes next has to be flexible enough so that all farmers can engage with it, and there has got to be the scope to support regional priority habitats,” she said.
“Every farmer can do some kind of environmental ‘good’, but they should be encouraged to do what they are good at. Ben’s farm is doing a brilliant job on wild birds and water resource protection, but public access won’t work here.
“One of my other farms is relatively small and located near to a town, his size inhibits taking out large areas for stewardship mixes but he has fantastic permissive footpaths which he maintains. That is what he is good at. So should he be forced to establish a wild bird mix, and Ben to have public access across his farm? Probably not.”
And the financial cost of managing the environment should not be forgotten, she said. “In my experience, farmers enjoy having stewardship options on their land – they want to protect their water courses and they want to protect the countryside, but the land they are taking out of production is their bread and butter. It is like saying everybody should donate a quarter of their income to charity. Of course it would be great if everybody did that, but often you need that money to live on.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
Another concern is how the environment will be funded during the transition to new domestic policies after Brexit.
Agricultural business consultant Abby Maynard said: “At the Defra consultation meeting [on the Health and Harmony command paper] they talked about a stewardship ‘hole’ between 2020-22. There will be no new schemes starting during that period. That is what we are worried about.
“With this ‘closed’ period from 2020-22 the risk is that if there is nothing to take the place of these schemes, and no BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments to get that income, then that is money being lost for stewardship options in these areas. Farmers don’t want to plough them up, but they will need to make money somehow. “I must be clear though, agreements that cover the 2020-2022 period will continue to be funded, as such we are encouraging our clients to enter Countryside Stewardship either this year or next as it will be their last chance to secure income and stewardship features on their farm through the uncertainty of Brexit.”
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