Major land use changes such as deforestation and restoration influence water resources in agriculture–forest landscapes. Changes are observed in water flows, groundwater infiltration, water quality and rainfall. Interdisciplinary water–forest research has unravelled biophysical parts of the interplay that influences forest and water resources. In this Perspective paper, we propose an expanded interdisciplinary research approach to study water and policies in agriculture–forest frontiers. The approach differs in four important aspects from previous ones: (i) a conceptual ‘frontier’ understanding; an analytical focus on (ii) agriculture and (iii) policy–water linkages; (iv) empirical attention to northern and southern countries. The approach is put into practice with the “Pendulum” framework, with interventions and the agriculture–forest frontier oscillating over time between exploitation and restoration. Through the approach, a better understanding will be provided on the dynamic interplay of water and policies in oscillating agriculture–forest frontiers, with changing outcomes for people and environment.