Big Sandy, Montana: Built on Sand or Food? (Module 1)


The present teaching manual outlines the first module of a two-module junior to senior standing case study, where each module can be imparted in a different (semester-long) course. Module one is applicable in research method courses in interdisciplinary majors such as Food Systems or Agroecology, while module two is useful for courses with an emphasis in a systems-thinking and community interventions. At the end of both modules, students should be able to identify the socio-environmental factors that impact a rural food system and how they interact at different scales. The case deals with Big Sandy, an agricultural town in Montana. Although Montana has experienced economic growth in different economic sectors, rural towns such as Big Sandy have not benefitted from this trend. Young people especially tend to abandon these communities. One reason therefore is a notably unbalanced food system: in Big Sandy, most of the town is dedicated to the (mono)cropping of wheat; yet, 40% of its inhabitants lack access to affordable food. Bob Quinn, a local farmer and businessman, is the big exception: he produces organically, experiments with unusual crop rotations and other innovations, and has built an internationally successful food business. Apart from increasing the students’ awareness about challenges of rural communities in an era of industrialized agriculture, module one of this case study deals with the selection of an appropriate research methodology to identify the stakeholders in Big Sandy’s food system (as well as their motives). Depending on the total number of students, the module can be implemented in 7-9 classes.  It includes pedagogical tools such as concept mapping, a jig-saw activity, and a debate. Students will produce oral presentations and a research agenda. Module two builds on this agenda. There, we emphasize the socio-environmental system within Big Sandy: How can Bob Quinn’s farming practices impact other stakeholders to develop a more sustainable food system in Big Sandy? How may such a food system increase the attractiveness of the town for young people?

Roland Ebel
Alexandra Thornton
Course/Class Size
Course SFBS 327, Major in Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems, Montana State University