One of the key questions to be asked of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme is to what extent it will be dominated by elements that take land out of crop production.

We’ve had some personal experience of this over the years with our involvement with various environment schemes. At the one end of the scale there is our arable reversion rough grassland that clearly forbids any sniff of crop production. At the other end of the spectrum there was our fields in archaeology protection schemes that precluded the use of plough but otherwise allowed crops to be grown however you thought fit.

For us as a business, the attractiveness of the schemes was more to do with the level of payment rather than whether they permitted arable production but we were conscious that there are efficiencies of fixed costs achieved through economies of scale to consider. Once you start reducing a cropped area to less than 300-400ha then fixed costs start to increase at a greater rate than on a pro rata basis. When it comes to the key issue of payment rates the term ‘income foregone’ becomes all the more electric when wheat prices have more or less halved then doubled in recent years.

Although the effect of schemes that preclude production will have different impacts on different farms, you could argue there is a deleterious impact on our industry as a whole if you downsize production. Things like R&D budgets and infrastructure investment depend on the critical mass of their economic foundation.

There is also the much-discussed chestnut of our food self-sufficiency as a nation. Without going into this vast discussion in detail, the simple fact is if we produce less food as a nation and consumption patterns remain the same then we will import more from abroad. This will in turn have important impacts on our economy and on the environments of those places that make up the shortfall.

There are also important cultural issues. For right or wrong farmers are by definition active food producers rather than passive park keepers.

So there is a case for coming up with imaginative environment schemes that allow production rather than preclude it. I was chewing this over in my mind as I trudged through my oilseed rape crops on my winter morning ritual of checking for pigeons and test firing the bangers.

The OSR is notably proud this year having thrived in the wet and warm autumn. Although some agronomists, with good reason, will worry about over-proud OSR crops, in another analysis it should be seen as a good cover crop providing all sorts of other benefits. It’s fixing nutrients, so they don’t wash away in what is proving a very wet winter. Very importantly it’s absorbing and fixing carbon. Furthermore it’s conditioning the soil with its vigorous rooting, and by providing a cover, protecting against erosion. Finally, judging by the linnets, hares and skylarks I disturb as I trudge across the crop, it’s good for biodiversity, (and of course the bloody pigeons!)

Then there’s the benefits of over-wintering OSR crops in terms of the boon they provide to insects in early spring as a rich source of pollen, not to mention nesting habitats for reed buntings in early summer.

I don’t suppose there is a snowflake’s chance in Hell that Defra would ever accept winter OSR as eligible for an acreage payment under an environment scheme but nonetheless maybe we should be making the case. If it requires some sort of min-till, non-plough condition then all the better. On our land in the typically dry autumn it’s almost impossible to get good tight seedbeds for small seeds behind the plough anyway. So it would be a win for my bank account and the ecology of my farm not to mention the nation’s food security and balance of payments. What’s not to like?

Guy Smith grows 500ha of combinable crops on the north east Essex coast. @EssexPeasant