Land shortages are forcing more smallholder farmers to cultivate tropical steeplands. Resulting accelerated soil erosion is being countered by the promotion of soil conservation (SC) technologies, such as cross-slope barriers, which aim to reduce soil loss and preserve land productivity. However, farmer adoption rates tend to be low. This is often attributed to the farmers' conservatism or lack of education. Research in Honduras's steeplands demonstrates that farmers value SC, provided that it promotes agricultural production. Field research from 1995–98, involving farmed test plots on slopes greater than 35 per cent (19 degrees), demonstrates that at least one typical SC technology—live barriers of Vetiveria zizanioides (vetiver grass)—has little or no impact on maize yield. This means that farmers see little benefit from their investment in the SC method. They find that erratic rainfall, pests and diseases and a lack of economic resources are far greater threats to their livelihoods than soil erosion. Consequently, SC has a low priority. Keeping soil in place avoids major off-farm disbenefits. However, the SC technique tested here made no discernible difference to slope foot sediment yields during the life of this study. In sum, a new approach is needed. Promoting ‘Better Land Husbandry’ strategies, which seek to combine farmers' concerns about productivity with conservationists' concerns about reducing soil erosion—often via cover-management—seem to be the best way forward. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.