Norfolk farmers piloting the government's flagship new green payments scheme say it will replace two-thirds of the income being lost from the phase-out of EU subsidies.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) is the first of three tiers in Defra's post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

Instead of being paid based on the amount of land, it will instead reward farmers for providing habitats and food sources for wildlife.

Algy Garrod started a three-year SFI pilot in January 2022 - one of a handful in the region - at his 400ha farm in Bintree, near Fakenham.

His land was funded under Countryside Stewardship for many years, but he left that scheme a decade ago due to "draconian" conditions and non-compliance fines.

The SFI pilot will see new flower-rich margins, grassed areas and bird seed mixes sown this spring, and some existing environmental features have also been included.

A good example is a small grazing meadow with trees, ponds and scrub alongside the A1067, which is uneconomical to farm so has been left for nature - but it attracted no recent funding before being included in the SFI pilot.

Eastern Daily Press: Algy Garrod is running a pilot scheme for the Sustainable Farming Incentive on his farm at Bintree near FakenhamAlgy Garrod is running a pilot scheme for the Sustainable Farming Incentive on his farm at Bintree near Fakenham (Image: Denise Bradley)

"You just have to stand here to know this has a biodiversity gain, managed like this, but we are now getting a benefit from it, because it is part of our scheme," said Mr Garrod.

"For me, that is a win-win. These things cost money to manage. If we are going to be encouraged to manage our countryside, it needs to be funded somehow.

"So let’s see what the pilot scheme does. If it comes up with the goods and we can prove that it is of use to the business, without being too onerous, then we may well continue. But it depends on how it pans out after three years."

Mr Garrod said there should also be efficiency gains and better arable returns by straightening field boundaries and removing less productive areas – a process already started before the establishment of miscanthus energy crops three years ago.

Although one of the conditions is soil testing for organic matter, the farm is not being required to submit biodiversity audits or winter bird counts - but Mr Garrod said he wants to do this anyway to gauge the project's success.

Eastern Daily Press: Algy Garrod (centre) is running a three-year pilot SFI scheme at his farm in Bintree, near Fakenham, with David Missen (left) and his cousin Ian GarrodAlgy Garrod (centre) is running a three-year pilot SFI scheme at his farm in Bintree, near Fakenham, with David Missen (left) and his cousin Ian Garrod (Image: Denise Bradley)

He is being helped with the documentation and management of the scheme by two fellow farmers - his cousin Ian Garrod and retired accountant David Missen.

Mr Missen said the SFI pilot was much less prescriptive than previous stewardship schemes, allowing farmers greater flexibility in how to create nature features.

"That is one of the good things about it," he said.

"On the old scheme you had to measure everything. This one says you need bird seed, nesting sites and habitats, but it is left up to us to choose how to create that."

But he warned the pilot also seemed more flexible than the SFI standards already being rolled out more widely by Defra.

"The outcomes may be the same, but in SFI 2023 the ways of getting to it seem much more prescriptive and apparently much less flexible than the pilot," he said.

The farm is paid under three SFI "standards". The arable and horticultural soil standard is paying £60 per hectare for increasing soil organic matter by applying manure or using cover crops - which the farm is already doing. 

Half of the payment comes through the arable and horticultural land standard, paying £74 per hectare to provide grass-based cover for nesting birds, winter bird seed mixes, and margins rich in flowers and insects. 

And the hedgerow standard is paying £16 per 100m of hedgerows. 

Ian Garrod said: "The pilot scheme gives the opportunity to gain about two-thirds of the BPS (the Basic Payment Scheme subsidy) income back, but it requires taking 10pc of land out of production. 

"But within that 10pc, you can use various scrubby corners or land that was not in production, so we actually took out between 6-8pc of quality agricultural land.

"The extensiveness of the scheme was what attracted us to it financially, but by heck did you have to jump through some hoops, and read and re-read prescriptions and guidance."