Despite the introduction of several soil conservation policies, degradation of agricultural land remains one of the major environmental problems in German agriculture. Degradation processes, farming practices, and soil conservation policies have all previously been analysed. However, the interrelationship between these three fields has not yet attracted much attention. The aim of this paper is to contribute new knowledge about this interrelationship by analysing the impact of current soil conservation policies on farming practices and on the mitigation of soil degradation. The paper uses the case study of the Uckermark region (Germany) to assess existing soil conservation policies, describe the soil conservation measures, and point out limits to policy effectiveness. The region is an area of high potential risk for soil erosion and compaction, due to the prevailing soil types, topography and climate. The actual risk of soil degradation has been reduced over the last decade through the increased use of soil conserving farming practices. The Institutions of Sustainability (IoS) framework by Hagedorn provided the analytical framework for the study. A literature review was complemented by expert interviews with 4 soil scientists and 26 in-depth interviews conducted with stakeholders. The results emphasised the potential of incentive based policies – such as agri-environmental schemes – to promote uptake of well-tailored conservation measures that reduce soil degradation. However, entry to soil-specific agri-environmental schemes has now been closed in Brandenburg. Therefore, soil degradation is currently addressed only by regulatory policy instruments such as the Federal Soil Protection Act and EU-based national regulations. The definition of precise technical measures or input limits coupled with enforcement mechanisms increases policy effectiveness. We recommend that the best approach for tackling soil degradation is a policy mix, with regulatory instruments enforcing a minimum standard, complemented with locally adapted agri-environmental schemes and enhanced by advisory measures. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.