Implementation of integrated catchment management (ICM) is hampered by the lack of a conceptual framework for explaining how landowners select farming systems for their properties. Benefit–cost analysis (a procedure that estimates the costs and benefits of alternative actions or policies) has limitations in this regard, which might be overcome by using multiple-criteria decision analysis (MCDA). MCDA evaluates and ranks alternatives based on a landowner's preferences (weights) for multiple-criteria and the values of those criteria. A MCDA approach to ICM is superior to benefit–cost analysis which focuses only on the monetary benefits and costs, because it: 1) recognizes that human activities within a catchment are motivated by multiple and often competing criteria and/or constraints; 2) does not require monetary valuation of criteria; 3) allows trade-offs between criteria to be measured and evaluated; 4) explicitly considers how the spatial configuration of farming systems in a catchment influences the values of criteria; 5) is comprehensive, knowledge-based, and stakeholder oriented which greatly increases the likelihood of resolving catchment problems; and 6) allows consideration of the fairness and sustainability of land and water resource management decisions. A MCDA based on an additive, multiple-criteria utility function containing five economic and environmental criteria was used to score and rank five farming systems. The rankings were based on the average criteria weights for a sample of 20 farmers in a US catchment. The most profitable farming system was the lowest-ranked farming system. Three possible reasons for this result are evaluated. First, the MCDA method might cause respondents to express socially acceptable attitudes towards environmental criteria even when they are not important from a personal viewpoint. Second, the MCDA method could inflate the ranks of less profitable farming systems for the simple reason that it allows the respondent to assign non-zero weights to non-economic criteria. Third, the MCDA might provide a better framework for evaluating a landowner's selection of farming systems than the profit maximization model.