Purpose: Why do farmers not take better care of their soils? This article aims to give insight into how farmers look at soil quality management. Design/methodology/approach: It analyses diverse land management practices and visions on soils and soil quality of ten agroecological and 14 conventional smallholder farmers in Araponga, Minas Gerais, Brazil. As agroecological farming (that is, managing soils with minimum use of external inputs) requires more complex knowledge, it is assumed that agroecological farmers would be more knowledgeable on soils compared to conventional farmers. This case study tests the hypothesis that differences in land management practices between agroecological and conventional farmers can be explained by differences in their knowledge on soils. Findings: The hypothesis turned out to be faulty: agroecological and conventional farmers do not differ in what they know about soils, but how they use their knowledge in their farming strategy. Both groups of farmers have different but rational farming strategies. Practical implications: Designing policies and measures to make farming more environmentally friendly and more sustainable as two-way knowledge exchange between farmers and science (and not as one-way knowledge transfer from science to farmers), to benefit from vital and context-based farmers’ knowledge and to ensure successful implementation of more sustainable land management practices. Originality/value: By analysing farmers’ visions on soil quality management and farming strategies, this study shows that farmers’ knowledge is valuable for farmers, for scientific knowledge on soil quality management and for policies which are to be effective and adapted to the local environment.