BY BRAD HAIRE
Farm Press Editorial Staff
IF YOU’VE BEEN to the Sunbelt Ag Expo’s popular hay demonstrationsite, you’ve seen Benjie Baldree, even if you didn’t know it. And if youwere a third grader in south-central Georgia in the last two decades,or the teacher or parent of one, you might’ve seen him, too.
At the Expo, Baldree was the tall, lean-looking fellow with theAbe Lincoln (or Shenandoah) beard wearing the broadbrim hat,collectively handling the walkie-talkies. His laidback but drivenmanner kept the moving parts of the Expo’s hay demo moving inthe right direction.
For 10 days or so prior to the annual show and during it, Baldreeis the ‘general’ of the 100-acre hay demonstration section of the600-acre Sunbelt Ag Expo Darrell Williams Research Farm, one ofthe largest hay production demo and research sites in the country.
Back in 2000, Darrell Williams, the Expo’s long-serving farmmanager, knew Baldree and his proven knack for steady organizingand logistics. Williams asked Baldree to start ‘hanging around thehay site’ when he had the time, Baldree said.
“He needed help, and we were already down here doingresearch work. We would talk from time to time about how hewanted to set things up with the forage demo,” Baldree, 72, saidduring an interview at the Expo headquarters in August.
Baldree at the time was an agronomic research technicianbased on the University of Georgia campus in Tifton, just north ofthe Expo grounds. He wasn’t looking for another task.
“But I guess you could say before I knew it, I was the guy look-
ing after the hay and hay equipment during the Expo,” he said with
a laugh. “But from my standpoint, I saw it as another adventure. I
believed in what the Expo was doing and still do.”
Two decades ago, he said, the Expo hay demos maybe included
20 pieces of equipment total. Today, it can total as many as 80
pieces of equipment, including mowers, balers, rakes and tedders,
demonstrating each piece of equipment twice a day each of the
three days of the show.
“If someone wants to see what it is all capable of doing, this is literally the only place in the world to see it all like we’re able to do. In areal-life situation, people see what they want to see and learn whatthey want to learn about hay production in the Southeast,” he said.
In the last decade, interest in hay production has grown ‘tremendously in the lower Southeast,” he said. “I tell people backwhen I was younger, trying to grow a little bit of hay, most folksdidn’t know what a tedder was around here. But now hay production is a big business. People are shopping all the time for hayequipment and trying to stay ahead or increase their production.”Georgia producers managed almost 600,000 acres of hay in 2020with average yield of three tons per acre, according to USDA data.
Baldree grew up on the family farm in Tift County, where he stilllives. He graduated from high school in 1968, and then got a two-year ag degree from the local Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Soon after college, he took a job at a large well-known plantation in Lee County, Ga., becoming the owner’s ‘24/7 man.’ Helearned how to work for a workaholic, he said, who expected a lot.
Soon after Baldree started, the plantation owner rented anextra 1,000 acres of peanut allotment at the time on another farm.He wanted calcium samples taken from each acre of it. That wasone of Baldree’s assignments. He and the owner met at 5: 30 sharpat the local restaurant each morning for additional ones. It was alearning experience. After a short stint on the plantation, he beganlooking for other opportunities. His agricultural teacher, CharlieMajeski, told Baldree if he wanted another job to call Milton Walker,a research agronomist back in Tift County. Baldree called Walker.
“I knew row crops backwards and forwards, but you could say Igot on-the-job training from Milton on conducting actual research-type plot work. I was young and found it interesting,” he said.
For years, he farmed fulltime and worked fulltime on what wasback in the day called the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga.
“People remember that back in 70s and 80s it was difficult timesfor farming, especially row crop. And as the old saying goes, ‘If youcan’t figure it out on paper, you might not need to try it.’ I guess
He manages the largest hay demo,brought ag awareness to a generation
Darrell Williams, the Expo’s long-serving farm manager, asked BenjieBaldree to start ‘hanging around the hay site’ when he had the time.
More than 20 years later, Baldree still has the time and handle on oneof the largest hay demonstrations sites in the country.
The 100-acre hay demonstration section hits full swing on the 600-acre Sunbelt Ag Expo Darrell Williams Research Farm, during theExpo’s annual show.