Joey Birrittier’s FFA career began unremarkably.
As a freshman at Waterloo High School, his guidance counselor told him to sign up for an elective class. He told the counselor to pick.
She signed him up for an agriculture class, which soon found him in the school’s FFA program.
“I like to say it’s a happy accident,” Joey said. “I’m grateful for that occurrence.”
He went on to hold positions in the Waterloo FFA chapter and at the regional level before eventually becoming Illinois FFA President last June.
Then, this year, he ran for a position as a national FFA officer, making it to the final 23 candidates before being eliminated.
Joey spoke with the Republic-Times about his experience as a state officer and the run for national office.
In order to become the president of Illinois’ FFA, Joey underwent a rigorous selection process that involved giving speeches, being interviewed by a selection committee and facilitating a workshop.
He and nine other finalists for the position then gave a final three-minute speech to FFA students serving as delegates from around the state.
They elected Joey their president.
“It’s an amazing thing that it’s all in the hands of the delegates,” Joey said. “In most states, it’s done by a selection committee. But we put the power and the future in the hands of our students. It really shows how the students grasp leadership and grasp helping out the future of the organization.”
Joey’s parents, Don and Tina, said they were proud of their son for that accomplishment.
“It was crazy,” Tina said. “He had a lot of preparation to go through to become a state officer. There was a lot of interviewing process he had to go through and a lot of studying, so we helped him through that.”
“It was very gratifying in that it was something we knew he had set as a goal after he became a chapter officer and started thinking about running for state,” Don agreed.
To serve as state president, Joey took a year off college after graduating from WHS.
His responsibilities as president included representing the 18,500 Illinois FFA members when lobbying legislators in Washington, D.C., speaking to students in about 90 schools statewide, talking with state and agriculture leaders and hosting the state convention.
His work weeks were often seven days.
“I believe as state officers we’re supposed to sell the brand of FFA and sell its successes to students, industry leaders and schools,” Birrittier summed up.
He said the experience of being state president hugely impacted him since he did not come from an ag background.
“Before I was elected state president I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my career,” he explained. “And after visiting all these schools I realized my passion, my future is going to be in the classroom.
“I hope to one day become a high school ag teacher and FFA advisor and one day go into education administration. I became passionate about education through my year as a state president. It was a life-changing experience and it opened my eyes to the agriculture industry.”
Joey’s experience as a state officer also helped convince him to run for national office.
On one trip, he was speaking at the Chicago High School for Agriculture Sciences, telling students about his experience coming from Waterloo and an urbanized background.
A child came up to him after his presentation and told Joey he changed her perspective on the FFA and agriculture.
“I told myself, ‘I think I could try this on a national level. Maybe I could help out students and sell the brand of FFA on a nationwide level,’” Joey recalled.
So, he began preparing for the National FFA Convention, which took place Oct. 24-27 in Indianapolis, Ind.
To do so, he worked with several individuals and companies, with Bayer in St. Louis and the Illinois Farm Bureau proving especially helpful.
That process was even more rigorous than the state one. This time, Joey was up against 43 other candidates.
In the first phase, these students had to be interviewed, give a speech on an issue and perform a written exercise related to agriculture.
Joey made it through that phase, being one of 23 finalists.
Next, he completed a second interview, facilitated a workshop on agriculture and gave another speech.
Even after all his hard work, Joey was not selected for a national role.
“Unfortunately it didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but life goes on, as my dad always says,” Joey said. “Having gone through something that crazy, that intense has really helped prepare me for whenever I do internship interviews and career interviews.”
Don said Joey had prepared himself for that eventuality and was prepared to just go back to school.
The parents also agreed the national convention was less stressful since they had the state-level experience, but it was still trying.
“It was like being on pins and needles,” Tigina said. “For the last two years, it’s been a crazy ride for both Don and I as parents to see our son achieve what he’s achieved. This last part of his FFA career was pretty intense.”
“FFA has been so wonderful for him,” she added. “He’s really grown as a young adult, and we really appreciate what has happened for him through FFA.”
Don said the family had many people to thank for Joey having the success he has had in FFA.
“(WHS teacher) Tim McDermott has been extremely supportive and lent a lot of his time and comments,” he said. “Joey made it as far as he did because of many individuals, but Tim McDermott was especially helpful in the last five or six years.”
Although he did not get a national position, Joey said he still was proud of all he has done in FFA.
“I feel extremely honored,” he said. “I wasn’t upset about not being elected to an officer position because when they cut it in half, there was 23 of us out of 680,000. I was fortunate enough to be one of those 23. I left, even though I didn’t get elected, with my pride and head held high.”
Joey is studying agriculture education at the University of Illinois.