Sustainable land use requires development of agricultural production systems that, in addition to economic objectives, contribute to objectives in areas such as environment, health and well-being, rural scenery and nature. Since these objectives are at least partially conflicting, development of sustainable farming systems is characterized by negotiation about acceptable compromises among objectives. Four phases can be distinguished in the course of farming systems development: diagnosis, design, testing and improvement, and dissemination. During the last decade an approach coined 'prototyping' has emerged as a promising method for empirical farming systems development in Western Europe. Limitations of the approach include: (1) the limited number of systems that can be evaluated, resulting in a lack of perspective on conflicts among objectives, and (2) the expertise-based nature of rules used during systems design which unduly narrows the range of available options and obscures understanding of systems behaviour. In the paper, explorative studies based on transparent models of agronomy and management are put forward to supplement empirical prototyping and to remedy its shortcomings. To illustrate the potential of model-based explorations, two case studies are presented. The first case study deals with diagnosis and design of wheatbased rotations in the Paris Basin of France, aimed at alleviating tactical problems of poor resource-use efficiency within the constraints imposed by existing crop rotations. The second case study addresses design of sustainable bulb-based farming systems in the Netherlands with the purpose of investigating strategic options at crop rotation and farm level to resolve conflicts between economic and environmental objectives. In the discussion, methodological elements of model-based explorations, and interaction with stakeholders are addressed, and opportunities for enhanced development of sustainable farming systems are identified.