Climate change and dynamic government policy is compounding pressure on water resources in farming landscapes creating water scarcity. Successful adaptation to a more sustainable farming system in the face of water scarcity is not a foregone conclusion and requires choosing between short-term incremental change or more transformational options. In this paper, we propose a framework ‘unpacking’ four pathways that farmers might use to achieve sustainability: absorb, exploit, adapt and transform. Each pathway has specific attributes that relate to the type of farming system change undertaken. The framework is applied to 28 irrigation farmers from southern Murry Darling Basin, Australia, all facing water scarcity from drought and water policy. Using semi-structured interviews, we test the attributes and found they help understand farmers' pathway choices. We show that farmers use all four pathways, either singularly or simultaneously, to achieve a range of sustainability outcomes when facing a water crisis, although some are maladapted, and result in less sustainable outcomes. The study adds to the literature on pathways to sustainability by illustrating the need to clarify attributes that describe what each pathway means to farmers' decision-making and to consider multiple pathways, not just one, e.g. transformation. Policy implications are clear: there are various pathways to, or away from, farm sustainability. Therefore, policy interventions must be 'fit for purpose' and appropriately consider the diversity of farmer capacities and contexts. A focus on a single pathway or single technological fix will fail to deliver farm sustainability. This paper starts to develop a more specific and nuanced understanding of pathways to farm sustainability that reflect real life farming experiences with insight for policy and practice.