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FWAG Members in Conversation with Janet Hughes

The Director of DEFRA's Future Farming Programme has told FWAG members that it is ‘crunch time’ for the programme. In the session, hosted online by FWAG last week, members had a chance to put their questions on the roll out of the programme directly to Janet Hughes. This was the second audience with Janet Hughes for FWAG members in the past year. There follows a summary of discussions:

Hughes explained the necessity for the implementation of the Future Farming Programme to be incremental, rather than launching ‘everything at once’, so that lessons could be learned along the way. The pilot for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) had 938 applications. This year will see the opening of the SFI to all farmers (in liaison with the RPA to ensure a smooth roll out). There are also plans to test the Nature Recovery Scheme with a competition for the first round of landscape recovery projects. The roll out of the Farming Investment Fund the Resilience Fund is set to continue. Hughes confirmed there will be ‘more to say’ about regulation and enforcement this year.

In response to whether the horticultural sector had been consulted in the design of the SFI standards, Hughes explained that they had, but that not all businesses in that sector meet the minimum size requirements, or previously claimed BPS. As such, specific provision had been made for horticultural businesses in the Farming Investment Fund, but take-up was poorer than expected. Feedback will be sought as to why this is. Hughes explained that they will look at extending the SFI to farms of less than 5 ha as soon as they can, but this needs to happen sequentially.

Hughes explained they had made several changes to simplify Countryside Stewardship (CS) and make the inspection and control regime fairer and more proportionate. They have also increased the payment rates to bring them up to date. The ambition for the new schemes is that they will be much more for flexible for people, including on issues such as the timing of capital works, altering agreements and adding more land. Last year saw a 40 percent increase in uptake of CS agreements.

There are no plans to increase capital payments rates yet, despite rising cost of materials. While access and heritage is not being prioritised yet, they will continue to invest in it, but will be looking at revising it post 2024.

Hughes clarified the rules on the compatibility and overlap of the SFI and CS, explaining that you can claim to do something on the same piece of land, so long as you are not already being paid to do it on that land and so long as the option is compatible with what you are already claiming for.

Hughes explained that in future the guidance for schemes will be more outcome focused, likening it to a recipe which farmers can tailor to their particular setting.

When asked whether hard copies of application packs would be available, Hughes said it was unlikely that packs would ever again be posted out to farmers, but that providing a printable pdf may be a good way to meet in the middle, in addition to the online forms. Hughes explained that with all the content they develop they are consulting farmers to test it out and improve and simplify it.

On trees outside of woodland and shelter belts, Hughes explained the England Woodland Creation Offer is still the place to go in the short term and caters for smaller shelter belts and hedgerow planting. This will eventually become part of ELM (existing schemes can transfer across to ELM when that happens) and in the new schemes there will be less of a division between woodland and farmland.

Hughes was asked how to create a system where manure and slurry does not cause pollution and is valued as a resource rather than seen as waste. Hughes explained several teams are looking at this, including looking at investment in slurry storage, and they are working to create the joined-up approach that is needed for these issues.

The phosphates issue was discussed along with the difficulty in identifying where phosphate pollution comes from. Hughes explained farmers will be paid for what measures they have taken to prevent pollution from their own land, rather than being judged by the state of their local river, which could obviously contain phosphates from other sources.

On soil organic matter testing, Hughes said they will provide flexibility in the guidance for the soil testing requirements in the standard so it can be carried out in a way which makes sense for their farm.

Hughes was thanked for her time and feedback from FWAG members was that this was another very useful session. The full session can be viewed by following the YouTube video link above.

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