Since the late 1990s, value chains and related concepts have captured the attention of researchers and practitioners alike. EDM’s 2017 double special issue on value chain development in agriculture attested to the enduring interest in the subject. Often, however, researchers and practitioners have thought about value chains in quite different ways. This has impeded the formation of a common language around value chains and the evolution of how value chain concepts are applied in rural development. For researchers, value chains are a theoretical framework around which to examine globalizing food markets and the numerous and important ways in which they have transformed relations between retailers, processors, farmers and consumers. For practitioners, however, value chains are actual configurations of farmers and business leaders, operating in the most challenging of business environments, who in theory can derive benefits from increased cooperation and coordination. Unpacking the twists and turns in value chain thinking and applications over time can shed light on why communication between researchers and practitioners has been so challenging, and crucially, future opportunities for more effective dialogue, action, and impact.