There is broad agreement that agriculture has to become more sustainable in order to provide enough affordable, healthy food at minimal environmental and social costs. But what is “more sustainable”? More often than not, different stakeholders have opposing opinions on what a more sustainable future should look like. This normative dimension is rarely explicitly addressed in sustainability assessments. In this study, we present an approach to assess the sustainability of agricultural development that explicitly accounts for the normative dimension by comparing observed development with various societal visions. We illustrate the approach by analyzing farm- and landscape-scale development as well as sustainability outcomes in a Swiss case study landscape. Observed changes were juxtaposed with desired changes by Avenir Suisse, a liberal think tank representing free-market interests; the Swiss Farmers Association, representing a conservative force; and Landwirtschaft mit Zukunft, an exponent of the Swiss agroecological movement. Overall, the observed developments aligned most closely with desired developments of the liberal think-tank (72%). Farmer interviews revealed that in the case study area farms increased in size (+ 57%) and became more specialized and more productive (+ 223%) over the past 20 years. In addition, interpretation of aerial photographs indicated that farming became more rationalized at the landscape level, with increasing field sizes (+ 34%) and removal of solitary field trees (− 18%). The case study example highlights the varying degrees to which current developments in agriculture align with societal visions. By using societal visions as benchmarks to track the progress of agricultural development, while explicitly addressing their narratives and respective systems of values and norms, this approach offers opportunities to inform also the wider public on the extent to which current developments are consistent with different visions. This could help identify mismatches between desired and actual development and pave the way for designing new policies.