Published 25 August 2020

Agricultural field with sunshine on the horizonIn July DEFRA announced that EU rules on greening measures will be scrapped from 2021, marking a significant change to the rules which have been in place since 2015.

Currently 30% of the Basic Payment Scheme is made up from the greening payment.  The rules comprise two main elements: the ‘three-crop rule’, requiring farmers to grow at least three crops if their arable land area exceeds 30ha; and Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), requiring farmers who have 15ha or more arable land to put 5% under specific management options such as buffer strips, catch or cover crops, or leaving areas fallow.

This significant change in rules follows the removal of the three-crop requirement for 2020 due to the wet winter and spring.  It marks the start of the seven year phasing out of BPS and the transition over to the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, due to be launched in 2024.

Despite the change, DEFRA has confirmed that farmers in England will receive their full BPS money in 2021, although this payment will be reduced as part of the phasing out/transition period, with a reduction of 5% on the first £30,000.

Scrapping the three-crop rule will reduce the burden for many smaller Norfolk farmers, allowing them to focus on just one or two crops, instead of being forced to ‘grow’ what would only need to be 1.5ha of a third crop - which could actually be fallow land - to meet the scheme rules.

We are coming to the end of a very mixed cereals harvest, with sugar beet and potatoes next: how these will perform with the prolonged dry weather is uncertain.  The three-crop rule has forced many farmers to make growing decisions even where the crop may not suit their farm’s land type.

Removing EFA requirements should result in cropped areas increasing by 5% next year.  This could be interpreted as an acknowledgement by DEFRA that the UK needs to focus on food production in the future. Sadly this isn’t the case.

The aim of EFAs was to provide widespread environmental benefits.  DEFRA suggests that these haven’t happened; in part this is correct.  Does a catch crop which is in the ground from 20 August until 14 October provide any environmental benefit, especially factoring in the tractor diesel required to establish and then plough it in?

However, cover crops do provide many benefits, including preventing leaving an open stubble (reducing soil erosion and run off) and providing winter cover and food source for birds - and adding organic matter to the soil when ploughed in.

All of this comes when the details of ELM are still patchy.  We know it will comprise three tiers with the aim of seeing farmers collaborate and work together to provide environmental management on a wide scale. We must wait until the autumn for further transition news from DEFRA.

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