This study aims to identify key differences between farmers who spontaneously implement stone bunds (i.e. farmers implementing stone bunds by their own initiative) and farmers who do not. Data were collected in the Girar Jarso woreda in the central highlands of Ethiopia, through a household survey with 80 farmers: 40 with spontaneously implemented stone bunds and 40 without. Independent samples t test, principal component analysis and regression analysis were used to analyse the data. Results show that five key-factors explain differences between the two groups of farmers: (1) readiness to change, (2) available resources, (3) social capital, (4) type of family, and (5) commitment. These factors together explain 73% of the variance in the data set and show that particularly characteristics related to the farmer’s intrinsic motivation play a crucial role to spontaneously implement and integrate stone bunds into the farming system. Furthermore, results show that young farmers are most committed to soil conservation: they are often intrinsically motivated dynamic farmers who are ready to change their future and improve productivity and food security. The study suggests that government extension programmes should therefore focus more on these young and dynamic farmers and foster their readiness to change. This implies that extension workers and government officials should better understand the crucial role of farmers’ intrinsic motivation when dealing with sustainable land management, and also reformulate extension strategies and messages. This is particularly important when developing a scaling-up strategy that helps to sustainably increase agricultural production and achieve food security of small-holder farmers in Ethiopia.