A SENIOR Defra official was urged to look again at future payment schemes for farmers as he spoke at the National Beef Expo at Darlington Farmers Auction Mart.

John Powell, head of the department's agriculture sectors team, was on the panel for a seminar on the future of agriculture support, where he gave a presentation outlining the government's plans.

He described the overarching aim as "creating a thriving agriculture sector and rewarding farmers for decisions that benefit the environment".

During the question and answer session at the end of the seminar, several speakers said they had serious concerns about a large gap between the current level of payments, and what they may receive in future under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).

Mr Powell said the intention is that "farmers should not be worse off", but one farmer likened Defra's approach to a juggernaut following its satnav down a narrow, bumpy road, ignoring road signs and "not looking at the road ahead". He argued that the government "should be turning this whole process around" for the sake of food production.

Tim Sedgwick, of H&H Land Estates, said a farm in the SFI pilot was actually worse off when payment rates were calculated, and it would be better to stay out of SFI altogether, Neil Wilson, of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, said his organisation was trying to push back against the new payment structure. "There is a growing evidence base there that these schemes are going to see farmers leave the industry," he said. "We are going to see a significant amount of livestock put off. We have reviewed 30 to 35 cases, the majority coming from the livestock sector. Every single one, the advice has been that your reduction in Single Farm Payment will be in no way recovered by SFI or capital grants. Sorry, but the advice has to be to put your livestock off.

"That is a really worrying situation for many, many farmers, particularly in livestock areas. You must have the evidence. I would like to know how you are taking that evidence on board?"

Mr Powell said the schemes are still under development and Defra are "working with farmers on the ground to feedback information," however he stressed that the government are "committed to a different type of agriculture".

He added that the department "do want to learn lessons" and urged anyone with feedback to get in touch with officials.

Meanwhile, fellow panel member Will Jackson, sector strategy director for beef and lamb at AHDB, said with the payment changes on the horizon, and cost challenges ahead, beef farmers needed to be looking at their businesses and thinking about what the most sustainable way of operating in future is.