ELMS is both a business and environmental decision
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The Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) fundamentally comes down to this: no longer is subsidy about having land, but about integrating public funding into a farm’s business plan.
Farming has always been about selling goods: crops, livestock, milk. ELMS adds an important new category of goods to that list – what DEFRA terms ‘public goods’. These include environmental benefits such as plants, wildlife and woodland creation. Farmers will face choices about whether they should be producing food or creating those ‘public goods’ – or likely a combination of the two.
Traditionalists complain that farming should be about producing food. That’s an entirely reasonable view, especially given the fragility of the world’s food supply chain, as exposed by the conflict in Ukraine. But ELMS and maximising food production are not mutually exclusive.
The new system is aimed at ‘sustainable intensification’ – concentrating production in the most fertile parcels of land while using marginal parcels for environmental benefit. Using that marginal land – requiring more inputs, producing lower yields and hence decreased profitability – and using it to produce ‘public goods’ is both a good environmental choice and a good business decision. It is the business aspect that should be driving the farmer’s choice on whether to embrace ELMS, and to what extent.
Soaring input costs mean many will be wondering whether they can make traditional food production pay. ELMS gives them another option, but it will never fully replace food production on the best quality land. Right now, output prices such as wheat have risen dramatically, which might lead farmers to decide that the better business decision is to keep land in production.
This will need to be balanced by rising input costs, which might sway a farmer towards putting land into ELMS. Starting by taking small steps into the new system seems a sensible way forward: once land is put into the ELMS Sustainable Farming Incentive, it is locked in for a minimum of three years (against five years for new agreements in the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme).
Environmental land management is not about reducing food production. It’s not an either/or: there is room for both, bringing benefits to farming and the wider world. How extensively farmers embrace ELMS should be primarily a business decision. Viewing it as producing ‘public goods’ (alongside the traditional farming ‘goods’ of food) is the best way to approach this brave new world we are faced with.
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