Government finally release details of post-Brexit subsidies for farmers

The long-awaited ELMS system has been unveiled by Defra secretary Thérèse Coffey. James Fisher reports on the news and the initial reaction from the farming community.

Details on the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS) have finally been revealed by Defra, ending years of speculation as to what England’s post-Brexit subsidy system will look like.

In a statement, Defra secretary Thérèse Coffey said: ‘Farmers are at the heart of our economy — producing the food on our tables, as well as being the custodians of the land it comes from. These two roles go hand in hand and we are speeding up the roll-out of our farming schemes so everyone can be financially supported as they protect the planet while producing food more sustainably.’

The new ELMS will comprise three payment schemes. They are the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which will focus on soil health and reducing the use of insecticides and fertilisers; the Landscape Recovery Scheme, which will pay landowners for large-scale rewilding projects; and the Countryside Stewardship Plus scheme, which will reward farmers for action to help Nature and support climate-change adaptation. In all, the scheme consists of some 280 payments that cover both Nature restoration and food production.

“If ELMS is to be successful, it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers”

The announcement of the finer workings of the scheme has been met with positivity and relief from farmers and farming organisations. ‘It’s encouraging that Defra has provided us with more detail on the future of the ELMS and brought forward a broader, more flexible offer for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI),’ says NFU vice president David Exwood.

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‘Information on the six new standards for SFI 2023, payment rates, as well as the evolving Countryside Stewardship scheme, is incredibly useful and provides some of the clarity we have been asking for. For farmers and growers making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to running viable and profitable food-producing businesses, it’s vital they have the full scheme details as soon as possible and know how the different schemes will work together. A speedy application and payment process will also be key, to give farm businesses some much-needed security.’

‘We have been calling on Defra to set out a more robust offering to farmers and, at long last, we are getting somewhere,’ agrees George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association. ‘It is great news that a broad range of farmers and farming types will now be able to participate in schemes, which will deliver environmental outcomes and other public goods. In most cases, there should be a range of options with which farmers can engage.’

However, there are some concerns that the schemes as announced will not do much to change the practices of large intensive farms, nor provide enough security for farmers in the hills and uplands. ‘Much of the expanded offering targets farmers on arable and grass systems in the lowlands,’ adds Mr Dunn. ‘However, the hills and uplands of our country have the potential to deliver huge amounts of environmental goods and services to wider society alongside their ability to produce high-quality food. More detail is needed to understand how the Government intends to partner with farmers who operate in some of the most economically fragile and remote areas of our country.’

‘There is little new here to entice hill farmers and lowland commoners to enhance our much-loved commons,’ said Chris Short, chair of the Foundation for Common Land. ‘Farmers and landowners were already able to apply for these options under Countryside Stewardship, so why would we see substantially more take-up of schemes by changing the name on the tin?’

The ability to create our own Nature-based subsidy for farmers has long been touted as one of the main benefits of Brexit. ‘If ELMS is to be successful, we’ve always said that it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part,’ adds Mr Exwood. ‘This means schemes being developed that are inclusive and available to every farm business — whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied.’