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Rural: The Sustainable Farming Incentive Pilot

Wed 17 March 2021

The Sustainable Farming Incentive is a new scheme that rewards farmers for their efforts towards environmental land management.

As a farmer, you can enter into an agreement that will pay you to carry out environmentally sustainable actions. For example, planting and managing hedgerows to provide year-round food, shelter and breeding cover for birds and insects.

You do not need previous experience in agri-environment schemes to join.

Before it launches, the scheme will be piloted with farmers. This is part of a process called ‘co-design’, which means working with farmers to make sure the scheme works in practice.

The pilot will be a combination of new policy elements and familiar elements. They plan to iterate and improve as they go whilst working intensively with farmers.

The intention is that the scheme will be sufficiently straightforward for farmers to make applications and implement agreements. The aim is that farmers won’t need expert advice and this will be tested in the pilot.


  • 2018 Tests and trials to explore ideas and focus on individual parts of the scheme
  • 15 March 2021 – 11 April 2021 Register interest for the pilot
  • 24 May 2021 You will find out if you were selected for the pilot
  • June 2021 Selected farmers invited to submit an application
  • Summer 2021 Agreements will be developed and agreed and more information will be released about the SFI scheme
  • October 2021 First agreements will start

Pilot expected to last until 2024

  • 2021 – Mid 2022 Concept testing
  • Mid 2022 – Late 2024 Launch and early expansion
  • Late 2024 – 2028 Scheme will be fully expanded


Phase One

Participants can select from eight asset-based standards, they will be based on specific features e.g., grassland, hedgerows, woodland. Participants can choose the standard(s) they want and apply it to all relevant land, or only some of it.

As the pilot progresses, more standards will be developed and introduced.

Eight standards (click here to read about them in more detail)

  • Arable and horticultural land standard
  • Arable and horticultural soils standard
  • Improved grassland standard
  • Improved grassland soils standard
  • Low and no input grassland standard
  • Hedgerow standard
  • On farm woodland standard
  • Waterbody buffering standard

There will be three levels to choose from

  • Introductory
  • Intermediate
  •  Advanced

(except on farm woodland which is set at a single level)

Each level will be more challenging, more rewarding and deliver greater environmental benefits.

There will be simple written guidance on how to navigate the scheme detailing how to carry out the management actions with indications of what success looks like. This guidance will be published before applications for the pilot open in mid-2021.

The aim is that the SFI application and agreement process is straightforward, quick and flexible and requires far less administrative effort that previous schemes. They would like to explore the extent to which ‘self- declared information’ can be used to support applications and agreements. This is information supplied by farmers and taken on trust with less need for upfront checking and verification by administrators.

Land Management Plans will allow farmers to map and record the starting (baseline) condition of their land and plan their future land management activities. They are intended to be a flexible tool owned by farmers. At the start of the pilot Land Management Plans will not be a part of the formal application but they will need to be prepared as part of the learning activities.


Initial group of several hundred farmers to come from a range of farm types across England.

Participants must commit to specific learning activities and provide timely, regular and comprehensive feedback on the pilot version of the SFI scheme.

In the first phase of piloting the farmer is only eligible if they:

  • are a recipient of the Basic Payments Scheme, registered on the Rural Payments Agency system
  • enter land parcels (fields) into the pilot that do not have an existing agri-environment agreement on them (there will be no double payments)
  • have management control of the land for the length of the pilot - you must get your landlord’s permission if required
  • enter land parcels that are in England
  • enter land parcels that are not registered common land or shared grazings

The full expansion of the scheme (from 2024) will be available to all farmers.


Participants will be required to undertake land management actions set out in their pilot agreement, and actively take part in helping Defra learn from the pilot.

Pilot learning will involve a range of activities, including surveys, interviews, group meetings, workshops and telling others about their experiences.

The learning activities will be straightforward as they want to capture ideas while minimising bureaucracy. However, potential participants should be aware that they anticipate that learning activities may involve, on average, around 10-15 hours per month.

They expect that most of these hours will involve ‘thinking while doing’. For example, a participant might be thinking about how aspects of the scheme (such as technical guidance or land management actions) could be improved, while planning or physically undertaking work. A smaller proportion of the time would be desk based, for example taking part in questionnaires or workshops.


Submit an expression of interest before 11 April 2021. Interested farmers will be asked to complete and submit a short, simple tick box form online.

  1.  Log in to the Rural Payments service 
  2. Go to the ‘Business Overview’ page.
  3. Select the ‘Sustainable Farming Incentive Pilot Expression of Interest’ form (it will be in the Environmental Land Management section)
  4. Select your farm type from the list - you should select the farm type that covers the majority of your land
  5. Declare that you meet the criteria and that you wish to be considered.
  6. Submit the online form.

This will help Defra gauge the level of interest and get a good mix of participants.

Once they have enough expressions of interest, they will invite farmers from a mix of farms to make a pilot application.

If oversubscribed, interested parties will be selected at random and invited to apply. There will be further phases of piloting the scheme so if you miss out on Phase One, you’ll have other opportunities to get involved.


The window to register your interest opens 15 March 2021 and closes 11 April 2021.


You’ll be paid monthly, as per your pilot agreement, for:

  • completing the actions from your agreement
  • time spent on learning activities (a pilot participation payment)
  • capital item payments will follow a claim back process (further information on capital items will be published at a later date)

You can continue to claim for BPS.

Payment rates for land management actions, for the first phase of piloting, are shown in the table below. These rates are set at a broadly equivalent level to rates under Countryside Stewardship. This is a starting position only. Updated payment rates for the launch of the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme from 2022 are currently being developed, in consultation with farmers and representative groups.


Initial base rates (first phase of pilot only)

Arable and horticultural land standard

from £28 up to £74 per hectare

Arable and horticultural soils standard

from £30 up to £59 per hectare

Improved grassland standard

from £27 up to £97 per hectare

Improved grassland soils standard

from £6 up to £8 per hectare

Low and no input grassland standard

from £22 up to £110 per hectare

Hedgerow standard

from £16 up to £24 per 100 metres

On farm woodland standard

£49 per hectare

Waterbody buffering standard

from £16 up to £34 per 100 metres