With the most significant farm support changes in a generation on the horizon, the generational change at the helm of its business has encouraged the McVeigh family to prepare by committing fully to Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) in its earliest development stages.
Having signed up for the SFI pilot scheme back in January, it is record-keeping and forward planning which are keeping minds occupied for the moment, but more complex changes to rotations, machinery and even field layouts will start to take effect this autumn.
Tom McVeigh returned to his 167-hectare, all-arable family farm near Debenham, Suffolk, in 2020, after working in the automotive industry since graduating in agriculture from Reading University in 2018.
Changing agricultural policy has encouraged his father to take more of a back seat in the business, while Tom’s sister is also now focusing on a new livestock enterprise.
Tom says: “We’ve never entered into any schemes, but my father had been talking with our agronomist, Rob Jackson at Farmacy, and environmental adviser, Hannah Joy at Farmacy-owner Hutchinsons, about committing to the Countryside Stewardship [CS] scheme.
“But with the Government developing its new agricultural policy following Brexit, I felt there was an exciting opportunity to do more than this and we considered it a natural transition point for moving the management of the farm to me from my father.
“Our farm is run currently on typical current agricultural lines, with a short rotation of two wheats and oilseed rape, across a landscape of large, open fields, well-suited to the current support scheme.
“I felt that a time of significant change was a good point to become one of the first farms involved in the pilot SFI.
I’ve also done this with other recent initiatives, such as the Farming Technology Fund and the Resilience Fund, because I think that with so much change coming, it’s imperative for anyone entering the industry to understand the changes and opportunities.”
As the farm was not in any established scheme, Tom was able to commit to the advanced SFI scheme, which requires the farm to put 10% of its land area into environmental commitments.
He says: “I wanted to go to into the advanced level so I could understand exactly what it entails.
However, at the point I signed the agreement in January, our 2021-22 cropping was already sown.
Expectations “Most of what’s therefore expected from me between now and the next cropping year is primarily benchmarking of business performance figures via completion of a land management plan and calculating option selection scenarios to help understand the different earnings and commitments of entry, intermediate and advanced levels for a farm like ours, to help Defra help farmers down the line understand why they should sign up for the level that suits them best.
“The whole farm is entered into the scheme, but I have the ability to change the level I’m committed to at any time.
However, I don’t anticipate this, as I don’t think that for our farm the demands are too onerous.
“The key difference in administration is that things appear to be moving from ‘be seen to be doing things’ to ‘outcomes will be measured’, so proving that will be necessary.”
The key change to the McVeigh family’s working practices is the requirement to eliminate ploughing.
Tom says: “That’s a big change for us, as we’ve been a standard conventional farm, ploughing every three years, cultivating twice plus rolling before drilling.
“An extended rotation is a commitment under SFI, with cover crops ahead of spring cropping, but I think all of that goes hand in hand with reduced tillage.
Our 2022-23 rotation will include winter wheat, spring barley, spring beans and winter oilseed rape, with a rotation of two wheats, beans, barley and oilseed rape planned.”
Cover crops are new to the farm and will be a learning curve, says Tom.
“But our agronomist has experience managing them for other customers, so I’m reassured we’ll have the right husbandry advice.
“We need to think carefully about what we want from them, with drainage being a key factor on our heavy clay.”
He acknowledges that moving in one season from a plough based system to direct drilling is a challenge.
Condition “But our soils, despite being heavy clay, are in pretty good condition.
We are trying to avoid changing equipment hastily, and the Defra definition of min-till is very vague, defining it as tillage of less than 100mm which does not invert the soil, so this autumn we plan to begin by reducing cultivation depth to 75mm maximum, using shallow spring tine passes.
“We will also be hiring a direct drill to begin trying to understand how it would work and what further changes may be required on our soils.”
The SFI payments do not warrant immediate investment in kit without careful planning and calculations first, he says.
“It’s unlikely we’ll be able to achieve our SFI aims with our current machinery, largely because we were contracting out many services, including crop establish ment.
But I am prepared to invest so I can take more of this back in-house and meet our commitments.
“We have our own tractors and some machinery, but not many implements, so we need to understand exactly what is essential.”
To add a livestock element to the business beyond the 25-head Longhorn beef herd the family runs, a poultry unit was purchased in March, with the aim of further diversifying the business and more fully integrating livestock.
“It’s over an hour from the home farm, which isn’t ideal, but gives us further scope.
We believe organic manures will play a vital role in our farming system, and because of the area we live in, they aren’t always easy to obtain.”
While all the farm is entered into SFI, the most significant change in the next cropping year will be to one field in particular which Tom is planning to use as a trial for a new farming system aimed at minimising both costs and monoculture.
“Soil mapping is a key metric Defra is looking to use to measure the outcomes of this future scheme, making benchmarking necessary for us.
I will also need to be able to measure my current system against my trial to understand any differences in outcomes.
“I’ve used Hutchinsons’ Omnia Terramap service to have this field and others fully mapped for nutrients, which also enables me to enter and log data for specific strips of fields and start to understand and compare their differences.
This could be a vital tool for better understanding of land’s productivity.
Transition “I think a transition to direct drilling will be possible as the field is sufficiently prepared – it has no drainage problems but possibly lacks some structure, so I’m prepared to take a punt with it.
It’s the next step in our move towards min-till and a further reduction in our fuel use and carbon impact.”
In the same field, Tom plans to put into practice his interest in the potential mutual cropping and carbon capture benefits of agroforestry, having visited experts in this area and in commercial tree crop production.
Tom says: “When I studied agriculture at Reading University, I found visiting other farms to learn how they did things really useful and also became very interested in the agroforestry work of Prof Martin Wolfe.
“He’s done a lot of fascinating work on the beneficial co-existence of different plant species and their often complementary rooting systems, their benefits as windbreaks, and mineral cycling “When visiting both Japan and eastern Europe I saw that strip cropping was common because they don’t have access to the crop protection products we do.
“I thought I could incorporate these elements whilst including beetle banks – a requisite of the SFI – maximising their effect in the field without wasting space.
The problem initially is that the SFI rules against ploughing, which is the best way of establishing a bank.”
However, strip cropping may not suit everyone, Tom acknowledges.
“We’re likely to be spending more time performing actions on this field than under our current system, but we need to find ways to reduce our inputs without compromising yield, while simultaneously moving towards a system aligned to greener farming.”
The farm’s first payment under the three-year scheme is due in May, and will then be quarterly.
Tom says being young and relatively new into the business means he is so far optimistic about scheme commitments and payment times.
“My father’s generation have gone through a lot of aggravation with such things but I’m new to it, so either naive or optimistic.
So far commitments have largely involved online webinars on subjects such as soil health or hedgerows, and submitting surveys.
“Hannah Joy, Hutchinsons’ environmental adviser, has been able to help answer a lot of questions, as the firm has other farmer customers participating, and has provided invaluable knowledge to help us understand what to expect in the future and how to practically achieve certain outcomes.
“It’s been a helpful exercise in benchmarking to learn more about our business, though, and I think this is the first step to a more sustainable farm support system.
Meeting environmental standards and producing high crop yields shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.”
If my beetle banks work and reduce my requirements for slug pellets by encouraging predation, it will be a pragmatic solution.
Fertiliser and spray cost rises mean it seems sensible to reduce our dependence on them.
Flexibility “By making changes now and using the SFI as a vehicle to experiment on my land, I’m hoping to find my business is more profitable, achieving similar yields but spending less, with wider diversity and more flexibility and a greater spread of business risk.
I may end up with a very different landscape to the one I got used to growing up,” Tom concludes.