Paying farmers by results 2

Last week I posted a blog about paying by results in agri-environment schemes which generated lots of comments.  Here’s another way that we could pay by results.  Like any system, including the current failing one, this proposal has its problems of monitoring, cost, fairness etc but it’s worth thinking about alternatives when the current system doesn’t work well.

Let’s be up-front about the problems about this proposal – it’s easy to see how it would work for farmland birds but difficult to see how, in practice, it would work for any other aspects of agri-environment delivery.  But if I float the idea then maybe others can see how it might work better.

This idea entails paying farmers for delivery of results regionally instead of solely on their own farm – it’s an ‘all in it together’ type proposal.

Recovery of farmland bird populations is an outcome which our public payments for agri-environment schemes should be delivering on the ground.  And we have very good information from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey of how the farmland bird index is doing in different parts of the country – so why not reward farmers if the index increases in their region?

A big advantage of this system is that it requires no extra data collection or analysis – it’s all done already (see here, here and here).  A further consequence of the proposal would be that the more farmers do the right things that actually deliver for nature then the more that farmers would be paid through agri-environment.  This would favour collaboration and peer pressure within the farming community to achieve better results.

The scheme could work through the payment by results payments being top-ups for all subscribing landowners in the region.

In the period 1995-2009 should Yorkshire’s farmers have had some reward for the increase in lapwing numbers? And In Yorkshire, skylark numbers increased a little bit too whereas my local farmers in the East Midlands presided over the largest English skylark decline over the same period. Starling losses are much of a muchnessacross England although in this case my local farmers and their neighbours in the East of England would do a little better than average because their declines were the smallest.

The data are there, they record something (although not the only thing) of importance and it wouldn’t cost anything extra.  It won’t happen, I guess.  But remember that we currently pour money into agricultural support that does not, generally, deliver the goods and too little is being done to solve this.  Last year’s BBS report showed that the farmland bird index reached its lowest level since records began – and you are paying millions for this failing scheme.


20 Replies to “Paying farmers by results 2”

  1. Who decides and has ownership of individual bird population counts? Who will be responsible for monitoring and counting species numbers? How will this inspection work be paid for? Will farmers be compensated using estimated numbers expected when there is a fluctuation in populations due to weather events, climate change and predator damage and any externalities out with the farmer’s control?

    1. Daye – you need to brush up on your knowledge of bird monitoring – just follow the links in the blog.

      1. Mark this is an unecessary put down to Daye and only emphasises that you are the person out of touch. Of course there are no bird counts for individual farms which could be used as a baseline for your paying by results proposal, so Daye’s comments are perfectly valid. Mark you have had 13 or so years working in a powerful position in the field of nature conservation and couldn’t sort this dearth of farmland birds problem out then , so how have things changed now?

        1. DavidH – The whole poioint of the proposal was that it would not need to depend on knowledge of individual farms as the top-ups would be based on the regional trends. Daye is welcome to post her comments here – and if you look back through them she does so in a pretty robust manner.

          1. Mark what you are suggesting leaves the loophole that a farm with a high number of breeding birds but which are decreasing could still be rewarded under your scheme because their numbers are higher than the average for the local area. The numbers of breeding birds even under your scheme would need to be surveyed ( by who?) before the final rewards are offered.
            The only way for this to work is for the farmers to offer a firm assurance that they are willing to try to improve bird numbers, followed by an initial survey to set down the baseline numbers

          2. David – at the moment a farm with a high population that is decreasing is rewarded, as is a farm with a zero populaion, as is a farm with an increasing population. And a farm with a decreasing large population would not be rewarded because it has a higher than average population under this suggestion, it would be rewarded because the overall regional population were increasing – that’s the point. At the moment all farmers in the scheme are rewarded whether or not the scheme produces any results – under this proposal all the farmers in the scheme would be rewarded IF the scheme as a whole produced results. That sounds like a step forward.

            And the monitoring is already done – not farm by farm – but at many random places across every county. That’s how the current survey effort produces UK, National and regional population trends.

            I’m not suggesting that this idea, or last week’s suggestions about paying by results, is perfect but it provides a way of paying by results region by region rather than farm by farm, with no real increase in survey effort needed.

    2. I think the point was that the data on farmland bird numbers is already collected – the proposal is to use that data as a means of evaluating performance as a basis for payments. You are correct that bird numbers can go down for reasons that are unconnected with the farmers management practices but they can also go up for external reasons. In just about any performance related pay scheme you will find that a proportion of the performance is due to factors other than the skill and application of the beneficiary who therefore sometimes does a bit better than deserved and sometimes a bit worse (unless you are a banker in which case it seems you always do better!). In the case of farmland birds there is strong evidence that farming practices are the main factor behind declines in farmland birds so a payment scheme that was based on a widely recognised measure of bird abundance is probably broadly fair (although it does not, as Mark acknowledges, take direct account of the health of populations other groups of flora and fauna that are affected by farm management).

  2. Sounds like a good idea. If it encourages collaboration and informs farmers in each region then great. The key point is ‘subscribing farmers’ otherwise you could have a few carrying out environmental work with the benefit also going to those that don’t.
    It’s like Enterprise Zones for wildlife to put it in a ‘Townie’ way..
    Subsidies paid for food production worked – that created food mountains, then why not for ‘Bird production’. Can you imagine mountains of Lapwings!

  3. As a recently retired farmer,I know that collaboration in farming never works, there’s always the few. The older the farmer the worse they are regarding enviromental schemes.

    Barry lintott.

  4. Mark, it would be interesting to have more clarification about what you mean by subscribing farmers. I take it that they would have to be involved in HLS or some such designations? The risk of raising an ostensibly sensible measure like this is the politicans take it on board and then, as you have pointed out in previous blogs, the NFU would do their worst to ensure that the undeserving with the biggest snouts would get them further into the trough than they already are, for no practical benefit for birds and freeloading on their more deserving brethren. Given the NFU’s previous record of success in that direction and the slipperiness of our politicians it would be easy to get “shang haied”. As someone who does the BBS that would be anathema to me!

    1. Phil – thanks. I think the benefits would only be shared by those ‘in’ the scheme so that there was less possibility of free-loading.

  5. Hi Mark,yes Barry absolutely correct and of course you pay the bad ones the same as those doing great things for birds which just has to be wrong,Pressure always seems to produce the opposite to intended result with farmers and those not caring about wildlife would get great pleasure from getting grants and doing nothing,pressure from other farmers would have no result whatsoever.
    What we need is to get the schemes to pay more for those important parts of the scheme and less emphasis on the less important parts.
    Perhaps the most improvement would be if we could get a cabinet minister in charge of this department that really wanted to improve things.

  6. Yes, I see all the questions that Daye raises as challenging to address but I really like the idea of Paying by Results on a local level. If we have the regional based incentive, taking my county of Essex, then all the conservation NGOs (EWT, RSPB) and their volunteers could all work together to help farmers into that scheme and to verify the results. It just sounds to me like that sort of policy change could make all our work in this area so much more fruitful. Trial it in Essex please!

  7. ELS and HLS (especially) have numerous options that are not relevant to farmland birds. So you would have to extract what proportion of an agreement is targeted at farmland birds before the payment is modified due to the regional trend in the farmland bird index. And the index is published a year or two later than the data collection, as it has to be collated/analysed etc. So the adjustment has to come at the end of the agreement (or perhaps at yr 5 and 10).
    Maybe with-holding a % of the HLS/ELS and paying that on results is a possibility – it would be simpler to administer. If the % was relatively high (25 to 50%) for the options that can be monitored, it might add the incentive needed to improve results?
    Or it might push more farmers/land owners into the HLS/ELS options that cant be assessment in this way. That is what I would strongly suspect as the outcome.

    I propose holding back 20% of the annual HLS/ELS, and releasing it at yr 5 and yr 10 of the agreement, after an inspection visit & review of regional / county data, to ensure better quality of mngt of the various options.

    1. Redwood – good preactical points. on timing, I have no doubt that the BBS data could come out earlier than they do – i can’t really see why they couldn’t be out by Christmas in the year that they are collected. You are right that there are many options not targetted at farmland birds – but they must be targetted at some outcomes and so, in principle, the same type of approach could be used. the essence of the approach is that all farmers in the scheme share the success or failure of the scheme as a whole so you only need measurements of the success of the scheme as a whole to do this. easier said than done, I agree. but, the current system does not reward success or punish failure.

  8. Neil I have had experience of payment by results. I had a farm inspection a few years ago which coincided with a particularly bad spring which compromised my unharvested crops. Although I had ploughed, power harrowed, bought, sewed and fertilised the seed, very little grew due to the cold and wet spring. The inspectors didn’t allow me to make a claim that year. All that money was invested in good faith, crop failure happens, but it is so much simpler just to use the area for grazing which is a safer return. As one of the 20% with no support, why should I compound the risks to my returns beyond those already embedded in farming? I struggle to see how these proposals take account of the different EU agricultural and Rural development devolved payment mechanisms in each of the four nations of the UK. The proposals may have merit in England where EU Direct payments are based on an area of ground and are shared out between all those who own land over a certain number of hectares.
    In Scotland the payments are based on agricultural historic production. 20% of Scotland’s farmers and landowners receive no EU Direct payments whatsoever. Scotland has always made clear that farming was first and foremost about food production.

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