Farmers in the Nicaragua countryside face substantial risk due to legal uncertainty regarding property rights, price fluctuations and limited access to rural financial markets. Income shocks can lead to obligations to sell land, can fuel differentiation processes, and can drive people into poverty. We review empirical evidence on income shocks and related distress sales by households of different wealth endowments. From panel data of the 1995 and 2000 land market surveys, estimates are made to identify relevant farm household characteristics and the market forces that determine distress sales. Results show that small farms are most affected by idiosyncratic shocks and usually try to adopt a defensive strategy based on reduced consumption to retain their land resources. In the long run, this strategy occasionally succeeds in preserving land ownership and maintaining income at higher levels than those enjoyed by landless peasants. But the pressures towards distress sales can, nevertheless, be powerful, and different responses to income shocks by poor, middle and rich peasants are likely to increase rural differentiation.