Sarah Mills: Can farmers use windmills to slow urban sprawl?

By Susan Rosegrant

Sarah Mills is the winner of the 2012 Robert and Judy Marans/Kan and Lillian Chen Fellowship in Sustainability and Survey Methodology.

Living in Sudan on a two-year assignment with her engineer husband in 2008, Sarah Mills was casting around for work. Mills had already organized a food distribution program there. She also had a bachelors’ in mechanical engineering and a master’s in engineering for sustainable development, and had worked in Washington, D.C., on energy and sustainability projects. So when the county commissioner asked Mills to develop the town’s first survey and town plan, Mills jumped at the chance and dove into the literature on rural planning.

But it was a shallow pool. Not only was there no rigorous work on rural planning in Africa, no new ideas had emerged from the United States since the 1980s, Mills says. There were plenty of studies about the relentless exodus from urban centers that was leading to the destruction of surrounding farmlands. But these focused on attitudes and policies in the cities and suburbs, where people and money were concentrated, and largely ignored rural areas and the pressures farmers faced to sell their land.

Sarah Mills (Photo by Eva Menezes)

Mills, 30, now a first-year student in Michigan’s urban and regional planning doctoral program, decided to change that. “The biggest challenge is that development happens willy-nilly,” she says. “If you retain land, you have the flexibility to allow development if that’s the right thing in the future. But once you have a subdivision built, it’s really hard to reclaim that land for farming.”

Since the ‘80s, government’s only real tools for protecting farmland have been providing preferential taxes to farmers or purchasing the development rights to farmers’ land, Mills says. But she wants to study other approaches. For example, she’s fascinated by the possibilities of a concentration of recently erected wind turbines in central Michigan; the 133 turbines spread over about 200 farms in Gratiot County make up the largest wind farm in the state. In addition to generating electricity, the turbines could play an important role in preservation: first, they bring farmers rent, an important subsidy to their farming operations; second, safety rules bar building near the towering structures, effectively stopping development cold.

Wind turbines on a farm in Gratiot County, Michigan (Photo courtesy of Greater Gratiot Development)

Wind turbines on a farm in Gratiot County, Michigan (Photo courtesy of Greater Gratiot Development)

To Mills, this seems like a win-win situation. But in many parts of the country, including in other parts of Michigan, wind turbines have been highly contentious. For her thesis, Mills plans to examine why. “What I want to look at is how are some rural communities able to rally around this wind development as a farmland preservation tool, and others aren’t.”

Planning is by its nature an interdisciplinary field; Mills will draw on agricultural economics, rural sociology, and energy policy to do her research. She will also use survey methodology tools. As the winner of the first Robert and Judy Marans/Kan and Lillian Chen Fellowship in Sustainability and Survey Methodology, Mills will earn a Certificate in Survey Methodology from the Institute for Social Research, tuition free.

Planners often come from more qualitative fields, so her reliance on survey methodology will provide an unusual twist to her research, Mills says. It should also add to its impact. “If I have quantitative data that I’m able to deploy over a number of communities, I can start to draw some bigger and broader generalizations,” she says. And that, Mills says, is critical for the field. “Because so few people are looking at rural planning, we can’t do it place by place. We need to have broad generalizations.”

Mills also expects to bring some insider knowledge to her work. She was raised in a Michigan farming community near the Ohio border where her parents own a lumber yard. “Growing up in a rural community really helps me understand the dynamics,” she says. “People are very cautious about wanting someone else to tell them what they can and can’t do with their land.” Those roots will provide the reality check she needs before launching into her own survey work, Mills says. “When I go home, I’ll talk to some of the neighboring farmers about what I’m doing and suss them out. They’re my built-in focus group.”