In the fifth episode of the Future Farming podcast, Defra Future Farming and Countryside Programme Director Janet Hughes talks to policy lead for the Farming Investment Fund Sarah Evered.
Listen to find out how the team designed the fund, what we've learned from launching it and what's coming next.
Janet Hughes: Hello, welcome to the Future Farming and Countryside Programme podcast. In today's episode we’re doing something a bit different. I'm going to interview my wonderful colleague Sarah Evered, who is the policy lead for the Farming Investment Fund and we're going to talk a bit about what we've learned from launching the fund, what we've done so far, what's coming next, why it's designed as it is. And we hope that will be really helpful to farmers. So welcome, Sarah. Thank you very much for joining me on the podcast today.
Sarah Evered: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
Janet: Would you like to explain a bit about who you are and what your job is to start?
Sarah: Yes. So I head up the productivity and innovation policy teams, so that means I'm responsible for helping develop the Farming Investment Fund, but also some of the other productivity schemes, so our resilience fund, the farming innovation programme and the new entrants scheme as well.
Janet: Brilliant. So what is the Farming Investment Fund, for someone who hasn't come across that before? What is it?
Sarah: Yeah, so the Farming Investment Fund is a grant scheme that supports farmers, growers, foresters and contractors with grant funding towards equipment, technology and infrastructure. So it's split into two parts, so we have the equipment and technology fund and that is a list of 120 items that applicants could choose and then they will receive a standard cost, a standard amount of grant towards any of those items.
And then we have the Farming Transformation Fund, which is run under a number of themes where we'll provide larger amounts of money to fund infrastructure projects. So in the first instance we're running a competition around water management, so that's to fund things like reservoirs and irrigation, for example.
Janet: And we've got another round coming out today, haven't we?
Sarah: Yeah, so we've got the next next theme under the Farming Transformation Fund, which is improving farm productivity. So this is this is all about robotics and automation, so some of the things that we're going to be funding under that are things like robotic harvesting, weeding, robotic spraying, different types of feeding systems for livestock, things like fertiliser efficiency and LED lighting, and a few other bits and bobs as well.
So it's quite a wide range and we hope it provides something for, you know, people working with livestock, farmers, growers in the horticulture sector and so the the information on that is in a blog, and we've put the manual out today, and the reason we've done that, whilst we're not opening for applications yet, is we've really heard the feedback that you want more notice of when we're we're launching these grant funds.
So we’re putting the manual out now, you can't apply yet, the applications will open in mid-January, but hopefully that gives the information that people need to decide whether to apply for the water management or the equipment and technology fund that are open at the moment, or whether to wait and apply for funding for improving farm productivity.
Janet: And if I'm a farmer, can I apply for both if I want two, is there a limit on how much I can get?
Sarah: No, you could apply for both. The grant thresholds for the transformation fund are £35,000 up to half a million, so you can put in applications for both.
Janet: And how do we decide, in the policy team how do you and colleagues decide what we're going to fund in the Farming Investment Fund?
Sarah: We’ve spent quite a long time working with farmers doing some co-design activity to understand the types of things that they want support for.
We've also talked to various experts who can help us understand what are those items, what are those investments that farmers can make to really drive up their productivity?
And we've also done a lot of work, as you would expect, with the big farming organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA), for example, who've also been able to feed in, and they’ve fed in a very long list of items that they thought could be included on the list, and then we've taken that and being able to whittle it down and determine the criteria for the items.
Janet: How do we decide how much of the cost we're going to cover and how do we work out what the right price is for each item?
Sarah: So the standard cost is roughly 40% of the costs, and the way that we've determined those costs is, for the items on the list, we undertook an exercise earlier in the year and we went out and sought quotes for those items to determine what that standard cost was.
And then we also looked back at the previous grant scheme, the Countryside Productivity Small Grant (CPSG), and looked at what farmers actually paid for those items, and where the standard costs had differed by more than a couple of percent, we've adjusted the standard costs accordingly.
Janet: Brilliant, thank you. One of the things that farmers have been asking us since we launched the fund is why don't we fund a wider range of items and a particular drill? Why does it have to be a 3 metre or 6 metre drill? Why can't we fund other sizes of drill?
Sarah: Yeah, so we've tried to provide a wide range of items and actually we've increased the number of items compared to the Countryside Productivity Small Grant list from 85 up to 120, and that has obviously increased the range and we've also changed the threshold. So the threshold for the equipment and technology fund, we now give a maximum grant up to £25,000, so that's allowed us to fund a wider range of items.
Your question about the drill: so on the list at the moment we have a 3 metre and a 6 metre drill. If farmers want to pick a different size of drill. So, for example, if they want a drill that's bigger than 6 metres, that's fine, but we will only pay the cost of a 6 metre drill, so that's the maximum £25,000.
Janet: OK, thank you, and the other question we get asked a lot is why can't we fund second hand equipment?
Sarah: Yes, we do get that question a lot. So the reason we don't fund second hand equipment is because part of the conditions of the scheme is that we ask farmers to hold on to that equipment for 5 years, and with second hand equipment, we can't guarantee the quality of that equipment and we also can't guarantee that it will fit the latest health and safety regulations. So we do ask that farmers are buying new equipment so that we can ensure both the safety and the quality of that item.
Janet: Would we think about funding second hand equipment in the future? Are we still looking at that question?
Sarah: Yeah, we could look at it. It is a tricky one to work out exactly how we could do that fairly, but we do get asked that question a lot, so we will look again, once we've closed this first round.
Janet: OK, so that's the Farming Investment Fund. We've launched some of it, we've got some of it just launched today, what does the future hold for this particular area of our work? What can farmers expect next?
Sarah: So I've already covered the Farming Investment Fund, the launch of the improving farm productivity theme, but going more broadly than that, in terms of other support that farmers can look out for on productivity, we've also got the farming innovation programme, where we've just run the first of 3 competitions to support projects that are looking to tackle productivity or environmental challenges, and fund the kind of innovation that that farmers tell us they need. And there'll be more competitions on that, coming next year for different scales of R&D.
And then we also have the Resilience Fund that's open at the moment, which is there to provide advice for farmers, and there's a list on the blog of the 19 delivery partners that we're working with who are providing that advice.
So I’d really encourage you, if you're looking for that sort of business advice, to look at how your farm remains viable over the coming years, to look at that advice from the Resilience Fund. And if you don't manage to do that this time, we're looking at providing more of that advice and working with delivery partners over the next couple of years as well.
Janet: OK. We always say in the programme, we’re all about testing and learning, and you've talked about some of the ways that we've improved these schemes relative to their predecessors. Is there anything we've learned already from launching this round of the Farming Investment Fund that's making us think we might want to change it even further in future?
Sarah: Yes, so before we launched this round, we did quite a lot of work to look at how the previous EU scheme had run, the countryside productivity grants. So some of the things that we've already changed compared to that previous scheme was around changing the thresholds for the grants. So we've reduced the threshold from £3,000 to £2,000. So that's the lowest funding, and we had very strong feedback that that would really help smaller farms if we were able to reduce that. So we've done that.
Also, we've raised that threshold as I've already mentioned, up to £25,000 to be able to fund a range of equipment up to a higher value, and to provide different sizes of drill, for example. And we've also changed the spread of the equipment, so there's now a greater offer for horticulture items and forestry items, for example.
But what we will do once this round closes is, we’ll be looking for feedback on whether the spread of equipment is right, whether there were things that we missed, or whether there are things that actually there isn't the demand for as well and we’ll be looking for people to tell us, did we get it right? Or are there other things that we should be doing?
And so we’ll be looking to do that ahead of the next round of the equipment and technology fund later on next year. And similarly on the transformation fund, we’ll see what the take-up is, we’ll be looking to get feedback so we can improve both the process and the offer as well.
Janet: And you've also changed the rules for contractors entering into the scheme, haven't you?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely, it's the first time we've allowed contractors to apply to the scheme, they weren't eligible under the countryside productivity grants, and we've seen a number of applications already coming in, so we really encourage contractors as well, as well as foresters. We've also made sure that there's a good offering for foresters under the equipment and technology scheme as well.
Janet: And what about groups of farmers? Can they club together to buy this equipment?
Sarah: They can, but we do need somebody to sign the grant agreement with us. So what we’d ask is, if farmers are clubbing together, that they make the arrangements in order to do that, and then either an entity or an individual comes forward to sign that grant agreement with us.
Janet: And if there's a farmer listening, who's got some feedback or some ideas, or some suggestions about how we can keep improving these schemes, what should they do?
Sarah: Well, they can do a couple of things. First of all, we obviously work really closely with the big stakeholder organisations, so if they want to talk to the NFU, for example, we're in close contact with them. Equally we're very happy for people to get in touch with us directly and provide those suggestions, so really encourage people to do that.
Janet: And maybe they can go on our blog and post comments there…
Sarah: Absolutely, that would be great.
Janet: …and then others will be able to see their comments too, won’t they?
Sarah: Also, you've obviously just done that thread on the Farmers Forum as well of suggestions, people were posting their suggestions there, which we've also gathered up and are keeping on the stocks, ready to think about for the next round.
Janet: So there's plenty of ways to get involved if you're listening and you think, what are this lot doing? I've got a better idea. Then you can get in touch.
Sarah: Yeah, there’s also the broader co-design, if you want to get involved in that co- design, not just for this fund, but for others as well.
Janet: And what does co-design mean for someone who's not part of Defra and doesn't talk about that all day long?
Sarah: Oh, that's a good question. Co-design means that we work closely with farmers throughout the development of the different schemes, and we want them to help us get those schemes right? So that's things like, how does the process work? Are the applications easy to use?
And also, really understanding what it is that government can do to support farmers, and working with those farmers throughout the process. And then also later they can tell us what we did well and what we didn't get right, so we can make it better for next time as well.
Janet: Fantastic, so you're dead enthusiastic always whenever I talk to you about your work, what is it that you enjoy about it so much?
Sarah: Ah, well, what do I enjoy about it? So many things, but I think the main thing is A: working with a really great team in Defra but B: actually working on something that will hopefully make a tangible difference to our users, to farmers to growers. And if we can help them improve their productivity and protect the environment, that's got to be great. So that really gets me out of bed in the morning.
Janet: Well, I can't think of many better reasons to get out of bed in the morning than making a difference in that way. Thank you very much, Sarah, and thank you very much listeners for listening to our podcast this week.
Sarah: Thanks very much.