Upland farm businesses will continue to be worse off under new support schemes unless the Government pulls a ‘rabbit out of the hat' and plugs the hole left by direct payments.
With upland farms playing a valuable role across rural communities, NFU uplands forum chair Thomas Binns has called for Government to act to bridge the current income gap and significant income loss faced by a range of upland farm businesses.
The forum's modelling work, which used real data from upland farms, showed on average the businesses lost 37 per cent of their support payments under the current Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) options.
Mr Binns said the repeated commentary from the beginning of SFI delivery, had been that the Government valued and recognised the work of hill farms with upland farmers being told they would ‘not be worse off' in the transition from the Basic Payment Scheme.
But the modelling work done by the NFU, which worked with six case study farms to calculate the maximum theoretical SFI and CS earnings available for each farm, showed the disparity.
Mr Binns said: "Like all upland farmers, I love the hills I work in and I want to ensure that I can continue to produce food for the nation while leaving the countryside in a better state for the next generation." He said the union had been encouraging Defra to do its own modelling work, but this had never materialised.
Data from the NFU's work has been in Defra's inbox since September, Mr Binns added. The ‘final chapter' of SFI was expected to be announced imminently, but there were some concerns that it could be delayed, due to the reset expected after the recent appointment of Steve Barclay as Defra Secretary.
He hoped the next announcement would support calls for further grassland options, greater flexibility of stacking and premium payments for bundling, as well as improved accessibility to SFI for farmers signed up to existing schemes.
With the clock ticking down for farm businesses, if the final stage failed to consider these, Mr Binns said he would request an Efra Inquiry to find out why Defra was not prepared to support what the modelling data shows.
Improved payment rates and options
Jane Bassett, an upland farmer from Derbyshire said: "The financial gap which has been clearly identified needs to be closed and closed quickly for upland farmers."
She called for an improved payment rates and options, perhaps bundles for grassland farmers along with the roll out of the moorland being standard to all.
A Defra spokesperson acknowledged the role upland farmers played and said it was 'continuing to work closely with farmers and landowners'.
The spokesperson said: " We have already increased payment rates under Countryside Stewardship and SFI to make sure that upland farmers are paid the same as lowland farmers for carrying out the same action."