Rancher goes to law school to protect family land
UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
MISSOULA—First-year University of Montana law student and sixth-generation rancher Erin Brush grew up at the base of the Tobacco Root Mountain Range in Norris, Montana. Her decision to pursue a law degree is deeply rooted in her love of agriculture and her drive to protect the land her family has been on for 150 years.
“Our own family was once taken advantage of by a company,” Brush said. “We didn’t have the funds or time to protect ourselves. I wanted to put myself in the position to help people in similar situations.”
Brush started out in 4-H, eventually becoming a state officer in high school.
“I lived and breathed 4-H,” Brush said about America’s largest youth development organization. “I tried out almost every program they offered. My favorite project was, by far, photography.”
Taking photos became a powerful way for Brush to show others her family’s way of life. She turned the skill into a small business to help support herself while in college.
“I’ve always loved taking pictures to show people what ranching is all about,” said Brush. “Most people have no idea what goes in to producing the food we all depend on. With pictures, you can show them emotion.”
Brush double-majored in agribusiness management and photography from Montana State University in Bozeman. She also picked up a minor in business administration.
She excelled within the programs and was very active on campus, serving as president of the Collegiate Stockgrowers, chair of College of Ag Ambassadors and president of Alpha Zeta, an honors club for the College of Agriculture.
“My grandpa and mother were both Alpha Zeta members as well,” Brush said. “Three generations of us went through MSU’s College of Ag.”
At a Young Ag Leaders conference in Bozeman, Brush listened to a speech by UM law graduate and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen. One of the points he made was that the state needed more lawyers in the agriculture space.
This resonated with Brush, and she saw a law school degree as a way that could help out on the ranch.
“Farmers and ranchers are the salt of the earth,” said Brush, whose family owns the oldest ranch in Montana that still raises livestock. “There is somewhat of a disconnect between them and the legal community, and how laws can actually affect their lives.
“My older brothers run the ranch, and there isn’t enough money in it to support multiple families,” she added. “I had to find a way that I could still help out but also earn my own living.”
Brush said that going to law school in Missoula made perfect sense.
“I can drive home on weekends to help out if needed,” she said. “I want to stay in Montana and advocate for the rural lifestyle. In-state tuition didn’t hurt either.
“I think there was a part of me that always wanted to be a lawyer,” she added. “My parents would agree based on my ability to argue with them from a young age.”
Farming and ranching are difficult lifestyles to maintain. Rising production costs, severe droughts, floods, broken supply chains and inflation are only some of the challenges ag families face.
“Agriculture is facing battles today which require more specific tools to fight,” Brush said. “We need more people to be zealous advocates for those in production.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the state has over 27,000 farms and ranches on almost 58 million acres of land. Montana commodities like wheat, barley, beef and pulse crops are recognized throughout the world for their superior quality.
The workload in law school is tremendous, a challenge Brush is well prepared for. She credits her ability to learn things quickly and her overall work ethic to growing up on the ranch. Brush says rural students bring different perspectives and her background is an asset in the classroom.
“There is a stigma surrounding ag kids going to law school,” said Brush, adding that her grandpa was suspect of her leaving. “He was worried that I would become an arrogant lawyer. Before I left to Missoula he made me promise to stay humble.
“He is starting to see my education as another tool our family has on the ranch,” she said. “Now he is asking me questions about our water rights.”
The law school offers classes in agricultural law, water rights, and other subject matters important to protecting the rights of farmers and ranchers.
As for the future, Brush plans to finish law school and then see where her education takes her. What she does know, is that she is in this for the right reasons.
“Money isn’t necessarily the main focus,” she said. “It’s about helping people get access to justice, what’s fair.”
Brush’s photography depicting her family’s way of life is available at https://www.ebrushphotography.com/.