Paying farmers to protect their land
Farmers: they’re the original friends of the earth who understand and appreciate environmental issues better than anybody. Rather, they’re often the motivated ones who want to make a difference to preserve their livelihoods. The government recognise this and are now introducing measures to reward good land stewardship practices. The Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) recognises 280 different actions that can help to safeguard the environment. They are a post-Brexit replacement for the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which mainly reimbursed farmers for the amount of land they farmed rather than how sustainable their farming practices were. These actions vary from conserving hedgerows to assessing the quality of soil. Martin Lines is the UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network and James Tytko paid his Cambridgeshire farm a visit…
Martin - We're standing in quite a large arable field, but in the middle of the field we've put in some habitat strips to bring nature back into the centre of the field. So that means I no longer need to use insecticides and we have more pollinators and predatory insects in our farm landscape, which I can rely on to bolster my food production in a joined up fashion. Within this field, there was a cover crop, so that was capturing nutrients and stopping nutrient loss. That's a new reward. We've got better management of hedgerows... so much of the natural capital, the nature items in my landscape, are now going to get better reward. We weren't getting rewards for that in the past and we're moving away from that area based payment: just because I have a number of hectares I farm. So it'll underpin my farming business in a more sustainable way.
James - I've heard the criticism before that this new initiative is paying farmers for doing things that they're already doing?
Martin - Some things we were already doing because we've already recognised having nature in the landscape is a benefit. But for the majority farmers, they haven't been doing that. And government wants all farmers to go on this nature friendly farming journey of working with nature and halting the decline in nature and putting more nature back into the landscape. And we're going to get rewarded for doing that, which will also help our businesses.
James - I'm getting the impression then, not only as chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network here in the UK, that you welcome these changes. This is something you're very behind.
Martin - Very much so. We've been working closely with government and with DEFRA about how do we design these so it actually works for farmers and all farmers can get involved. So we welcome the direction, which rewards active farmers doing the actions that society wants, which is real positive.
James - We've only spoken about two or three examples of things that farmers can now do and get a bit of money for.
Martin - So there's a whole range of things: it's planting more hedges, more trees. We are taking out some areas of the field and putting herbal leys in, to build fertility up. Bringing animals back into the landscape to graze, to build fertility, so I can remove artificial or fossil fuel based fertilisers. And it's bringing that integrated approach - not all of the options are available for me as an arable farmer. So there's multiple options for livestock farmers and farmers in different parts of the country. It's like having a shopping basket and you walk along the aisles, picking up the items you want. Then as you get into it the next year you can add some more ambition and put some more items in the basket. And it's helping farmers look at it as a suite of options and stacking options onto your farm. So I'm growing food, I produce wheat, but I'm also providing habitat. I'm locking nutrients into my soil, adding carbon back into my soil, taking it from the atmosphere. And these are all multiple wins that we can stack benefits across my farm landscape.
James - Of the 280 or so practices, obviously we're not going to have time to discuss all of them, was there anything you thought particularly was missing or anything that would encourage this sustainable push that the government really wants farmers to take on but hasn't been included in the scheme?
Martin - I think taking a whole farm approach. We could choose as farmers to do one or two individual actions at one end of the farm, but do some not good practice at the other end of the farm, and we need to take a whole farm approach.
James - One thing that's been highlighted as a real plus of the new ELMS scheme is the fact that it is going to be a bit of a win for smaller farmers. I think it's something like up to 90% of the global grain trade is controlled by about four companies, and previously under the CAP, which was the European Union scheme, farmers were getting reimbursed for the amount of land they worked on. So is this now a win for the little guy?
Martin - I think it is and a lot of the little guys, smaller farms, have more farm edges and the previous scheme rewarded you for bit just in the middle, the new schemes reward you for those edges. So more small fields, more diversity actually those small farmers will get more income. Farmers with big large fields will see their income decline because they're not managing that natural asset around the outside. So I think it really does help support that smaller farm business.
James - In terms of any further improvements, maybe, or certain things you'd like to see? You mentioned the holistic way you'd like farms to be analysed...
Martin - One of the concerns we have with the way the announcements have gone and the way they value it, it's about income forgone. So some landscapes aren't actually producing a lot of food and have been reliant on the previous payment structure to underpin their business which means we only value it on its food production. Some landscapes won't have an economical model to be farmed and actually they need to be valued for the public good they deliver, particularly the uplands and the Dales and places like that where public really enjoy the access to the countryside. And that also comes to a cost of the business: trying to manage that landscape to get the public good. So government do need to focus around where is the value of the public good in the different parts of the landscape across the UK.