Over the past half-century, major efforts have been made worldwide to develop sustainable alternatives to agricultural tillage. In line with these efforts, two main research development initiatives have supported the experimentation and dissemination of conservation agriculture (CA) in Laos. Here we present the results of a 4-year monitoring and evaluation study conducted in 21 villages targeted for dissemination. In a context of rapid transition to intensive commercial agriculture in Laos, CA has become an important constituent of agricultural landscapes. However, there are significant variations in adoption rates across the study region. Statistical and qualitative evidence suggests that experimentation and adoption are not contingent upon farm-level variables such as capital, labor, age and education. While access to land helps shape local decision-making, the land tenure threshold under which farmers are not willing to experiment with alternative cropping systems is relatively low and highly variable in both space and time. Rather, experience and awareness of land degradation, production costs, social cohesion and leadership appear to be key factors in explaining most variations in local adoption rates. These results indicate that the practice of CA is not necessarily incompatible with smallholder farming. However, while complex crop associations and rotations are necessary for integrated weed control and reduced chemical use, their diffusion would require a broader transformation of the agricultural industry and the current market demand.