Local FFA members take on state leadership positions

From left, Cailin Orgen, of Stephens City, John-Robert Helsley, of Edinburg, and Bethany Gochenour, of Lebanon Church, all 18, were recently elected state officers of the Virginia chapter of the National FFA organization. Josette Keelor/Daily

Three recent high school graduates from around the area have been elected Virginia State FFA officers for the 2015-16 year.

Elected at a Thursday morning ceremony during the 89th state convention at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Cailin Orgen, of Stephens City, John-Robert Helsley, of Edinburg, and Bethany Gochenour, of Lebanon Church, were chosen to serve alongside five other Virginia teens.

Orgen will be vice president, Helsley sentinel and Gochenour reporter. All are 18.

To represent agriculture education in Virginia is quite an honor, Orgen said. Each applicant underwent a rigorous weeklong interview process and was chosen from 15 hopefuls.

Other officers hail from the Glouchester area, Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Allegheny County and Page County.

Helsley said the panel of judges chose the most cohesive group of officers it could, so he’s excited to start working with them.

The National FFA Organization, previously called the Future Farmers of America, offers a mix of networking, traveling and competing, he said. “Just learning a lot more about everything in agriculture.”

Members since middle school, Orgen and Gochenour were presidents of their respective chapters at Sherando High School in Stephens City and Strasburg High School. Helsley was vice president of his chapter at Central High School in Woodstock.

They will follow in the footsteps of last year’s homegrown officers, State Treasurer Daniel Black, of Sherando, Sentinel Garrett Coffey, of Central, and Secretary Brittany Bowman, of Stonewall Jackson High School in Quicksburg. Bowman, of Mount Jackson, followed her twin sister, Whitney Bowman, who was state secretary before her.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley offers a wealth of opportunities for agriculture students to learn the business, and as members of FFA and 4-H, this year’s local officers have traveled to other states to see how agriculture varies around the United States.

Helsley and Gochenour are members of the Shenandoah County Honor Club, what they called a local version of the Virginia State Stars Program.

Gochenour, also finishing her term as national president of the Junior American Boer Goat Association, recently returned from a national conference in Nebraska before planning for the July leadership conference at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

Helsley said he’s looking forward to seeing how agriculture varies even within Virginia. Locally, he said, he’s worked with poultry, while Gochenour raises Boer goats and Orgen, more focused on horticulture, has learned from Frederick County’s bountiful apple production.

But elsewhere in Virginia it’s different, where Helsley said agriculture might mean harvesting seafood or growing tobacco.

He will attend Virginia Tech to study animal poultry with the hope of becoming a U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock grader.

Gochenour plans to begin her studies at Lord Fairfax Community College before transferring to Clemson University and studying agriculture education.

Both will defer their first year at college while serving as state officers.

Orgen, who plans to attend Tech this fall on an Anderson Scholarship and study environmental horticulture, said she hopes to either teach or pursue a career in the turfgrass industry.

Next week the new officers will travel to Blacksburg for a week of training and meet again on July 5 for a weeklong camp.

It’ll be their first opportunity to get to know each other, Helsley said — one of his favorite things about FFA.

Recalling his early days in FFA, Helsley thanked his teacher, Derek Ritenour, for helping him fit agriculture into his schedule for the fall of his seventh grade year instead of the spring, so he could begin FFA earlier than expected.

“That was the first time I did tractor driving,” Helsley recalled, with a smile. “‘Cause I thought you had to be in high school to do that. He helped me get my feet wet.”

“Growing up on a farm, I had been in 4-H since I was 9,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be in FFA just because of all the opportunities I had heard about that you could do.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com