Confused by ‘greening’? Help is at hand!

  • Posted

Posted 16/12/2014

The new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget period brought with it a new set of rules for all farms claiming under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in 2015. The rules, collectively known as ‘greening’, require farms with an arable area over a certain size to grow a minimum of two or three different ‘crops’ (so called Crop Diversification), and to use 5% of the ‘arable land’ as an Ecological Focus Area (EFA). There are exemptions to both these rules, but most Suffolk farms, being comparatively large and predominantly arable, will fall outside the exemptions.

As one of the Suffolk FWAG farm conservation team I have been advising three neighbouring arable farmers in the Stonhams on greening. The three FWAG members – James Forrest of Mowness Hall, Angus Hamilton of Pye Lodge and Robert Porch of Ley-Lands Farm – have arable areas well over the exemption thresholds, so all three must grow at least three ‘crops’ (with area limits on the two largest) to meet their Crop Diversification requirement. As they already meet these criteria, the impact on their farms is nil.

However, a problem arises with some small holdings which are contract-farmed. For example, Robert Porch contract-farms, amongst others, a twenty hectare holding three miles away from his home farm, and this land – currently ‘block-cropped’ for ease of logistics and management – will in future require two crops plus an EFA. Although not ideal, Robert has sown the land to OSR and beans, split roughly 60:40. Next year would usually be all winter wheat, following the break crops, but will probably have to be winter wheat with a winter-sown spring variety as second crop. James faces a similar situation. Initially he was optimistic that he would find a satisfactory solution, but it has not proved possible. He has a diverse eight year rotation on his own land and says that it would be far more sensible, practical and economic if his small contract farms could be cropped as part of that rotation (as now) rather than having to carry two or three crops each year. Their cropping would meet the ‘diverse’ principle of greening, but over several seasons rather than a single year. This season, at least, he will grow the maximum allowed area (75%) of a single crop on these farms, with wild bird seed mixture as second ‘crop’ so he doesn’t have to make costly special trips to manage and harvest a small second crop. This arrangement has clear benefits for wildlife, but the landowner derives no income from the second ‘crop’ and is therefore disadvantaged economically. This is a situation facing many small farms in the area which are currently contract-farmed and block-cropped, and at present it is difficult to foresee the longer-term consequences for this sector of this enforced change of management.

The EFA requirement for the three farms is potentially more complicated. With five options to choose from – watercourse buffers, ‘fallow’, cover crops, nitrogen-fixing crops and hedges – the EFA can be implemented through a single option or a combination of two or more. I advise keeping the EFA simple, at least for 2015. The obvious simple route is to grow a nitrogen-fixing crop, something that Angus Hamilton and James Forrest already do, with regular acreages of spring beans well over that needed for their EFA.

Robert Porch doesn’t grow peas or beans on his own farm and fears that a big swing to the crops because of greening will lead to suppressed prices at harvest. So his approach will be to use existing field margins established under various Environmental Stewardship schemes for his EFA. A preliminary calculation suggests that the farm’s EFA will be achievable through this, although we await precise definitions and prescriptions attaching to the ‘watercourse buffer’ and ‘fallow’ options (in particular, how to differentiate them visually) before calculating their exact worth as EFAs.

The cover crop option is largely superfluous on the clay soils because of the predominance of autumn cropping, and the hedge option is effectively out of the question for 2015 because of the need to accurately map and have verified all the hedges on the farm, a process which could delay the 2015 BPS payment. None of the three Stonham farmers are considering using them initially, although they may come into the reckoning for 2016 onwards.

Greening brings with it the added complication of ‘double funding’, affecting all Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and organic ELS agreements (but not Higher Level Stewardship – HLS agreements) which started on or after 1st January 2012. James Forrest, having recently renewed his ELS, falls into this category. He will see his ELS payment reduced from 1st January and had to decide by the mid-November deadline whether to keep the agreement going to 2017 at a reduced payment rate; to add more options to bring his payment rate back up; or to pull out of the scheme altogether (without penalty). He has chosen the first of these options.

One thing that all three farmers agree on is that they will keep all or most of their margins, plots, field corners and other wildlife areas, whether or not they are in an environmental stewardship scheme or used as EFAs. Angus speaks for all when he says: ‘They are the last things I would take out. They are a valuable management tool on the farm, buffering all my ditches, so I have no worries when I am spraying. With the change of hedge-cutting date next year under cross compliance, the margins will be also essential for access for hedge maintenance.’ James adds: ‘Over the last 15 years in Stewardship I have squared off my crop areas so fieldwork is now highly efficient, with little short work. I see no point in undoing that work.’ Robert takes a similar line, expressing a desire to maintain an interesting, diverse workplace to benefit current and future generations. All three comment with enthusiasm on the increase in wildlife on their farms in recent years as a result of participation in stewardship schemes.

Apart from the issue facing small contract-farmed holdings, it is clear that the requirements of greening may not be as problematic for farmers as was first feared, especially where there are existing features such as field margins, wild bird seed plots and hedges. As farmer Robert Middleditch, Suffolk FWAG chairman, notes: ‘As ELS agreements come to an end, it will be important for farmers to retain and enhance such features, both to help with their EFA and to benefit farm management and wildlife.’ All the advisers at Suffolk FWAG are geared up to help farmers through the greening maze, and we are only a phone call away!

Click here for more information about Suffolk FWAG.


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