Trading Places From South Africa to the Mississippi Delta

By Angela Rogalski

Matching South African workers who need employment with farmers in the United States is  a process that has become beneficial for all involved. Most times the South African people who come to America for farm labor work are looking to make money to send back to their families in South Africa, while American farmers are excited for the, quite often, already skilled farmhands. Several Delta area farmers use this system, one being Rizzo Farms in Cleveland.

Phillip Rizzo is happy to have three South African workers in its employment. Quinton Van Eeden from Brits, Northwest, South Africa, John Retief from Gauteng, Meyerton, South Africa, and Johan Froehlich from Pearston, Eastern Cape, South Africa arrived in the States through an agency in their native country, Ag Replacements, that matches South African workers with farm families in the United States for American employers. The three young men had heard through mutual friends in South Africa who had done this before that the experience and opportunities were great. They arrived in the U.S. on April 12 and will be here until the first week of November.

“When we arrived here in Cleveland, the Rizzos provided us with a house to live in, a vehicle to drive, cell phones; he pays all of our utilities, provides us with lunch while we are working, Wi-Fi at our home, gas for our vehicles, cable television, and healthcare services if we get sick,” John Retief says. “They also bought us three brand new recliners for our home and when we got here, our home was completely stocked with groceries. Then when we wanted a few things not here, he took us to the store and bought us what we needed until we got our first paycheck. It was more than we could have asked. Mr. Rizzo and his family, Mrs. Romona, Paul and Phil,  are very gracious.”

The three young men had never met before arriving in America. They each left South Africa and met when they landed in Atlanta at the airport. Then they flew to Memphis and met Phillip and Paul at the airport.

The native language for all three men is Afrikaan, with English their second language and they are followers of the Christian faith. Crops grown in South Africa are a bit different from Mississippi Delta staples: there is no rice at all, some beans and corn, but those are big farmers with lots of money, no milo, and cotton is grown, but very little, and all is done with manual labor.

Quinton Van Eeden is twenty-seven years old and left behind a wife and four-year old son to come to America along with his parents. He was supposed to come with a group last year, but his appendix burst and he was unable to make the trip. In South Africa he was a carpenter with some experience on a vegetable farm.

“I was the supervisor on the vegetable farm I worked on,” Van Eeden says. “Believe it or not, there is a lot more labor involved in growing vegetables than it is in the crops you grow here in America.”

He notes some of the differences when it comes to farming Delta land versus farms in South Africa:

“When you work on a vegetable farm in South Africa, you have more day-to-day chores to do. You can’t say we need to do this and wait two or three days. You have to tend to your vegetables every day. Another difference is the equipment. Tractors here are big and we use mostly manual labor back home. America is so much better. Some of the bigger farmers in South Africa have big tractors, but nothing like here in America. No GPS in the tractors or air conditioning.”

Van Eeden has learned many new things while in the Delta, things that he’s very happy to now know how to do.

“I have learned to drive the big tractors, lay poly pipe, plant the crops, water, and cultivate.

We did not know how to do anything when we arrived. Mr. Rizzo and his sons Paul and Phil have taught us everything we know.”

He adds that life in the Delta is a bit different from what he’s used to. “First thing we noticed is guys in America do not wear the short shorts. The ladies do, but not the men. Also the bugs. The mosquitos are everywhere. Another difference is the cooking and the houses. In South Africa the homes are close together and each house has a fence.”

And while he’s enjoying his time in America working for the Rizzo’s and learning new things, he says the toughest thing about all of it is, “Missing my wife and son and knowing they are doing okay back home.”

Van Eeden gets his weekly check and cashes it, keeping a small amount to live on each week until the next paycheck and sending the rest home to his wife and child.

“That is the reason I am here in America. To be able to take care of my family. One U.S. dollar is equal to $13.50 in South Africa. So, that is why I leave my wife and child to come to make money to take care of them.”

John Retief’s story is a bit different from Van Eeden’s. Retief is twenty-five years old and single. He wants to take the financial opportunities and maybe one day start his own farm back in South Africa. Retief was a welder and jack-of-all-trades in his country. He grew up on a cattle farm and taught himself everything he needed to know to make a living.

“This type of farming is very different from cattle farming,” Retief says. “It is not as busy. You do a lot of waiting in American farming that you can’t do in livestock farming.”

And the differences in farming styles aren’t the only ones he has experienced. “Since we have been here we noticed that people have natural gas supplied to their homes. We do not have that in South Africa. And we are having to adjust to the fast food lifestyle. There is one on every corner just about. At home we have  home cooked meals. That is one of the things I miss the most. Also the mosquitos are really bad. It takes a while to get used to. South Africa and America both have beautiful women. We don’t get a lot of chances to go out and admire all the beautiful women, but we have seen them around. One of the biggest differences here is people age differently. Mr. Rizzo, looks like he is about forty-eight to fifty years-old. People in America really take a long time to grow old-looking.”

Retief left behind two sisters, a nephew, mother and father and many loyal friends to come to America. “I left them behind to secure my future and to find a way to provide for myself and my family. There is no opportunity in South Africa like here in America. I am single, but I do send some money home each week so my mom can take care of some bills I have there. I have a car and she uses the money I send home to pay my car payment. I also have life insurance and my mom makes sure that gets paid every month. Sometimes my parents might need some money and I am happy to be able to help them.”

Johan Froehlich, better known as “Joe,” is the baby of the three at just twenty years old. Van Eeden and Retief pick on him and say he is their designated driver here in America. Froehlich grew up and worked on the family livestock farm back in South Africa.

“It is funny, Americans in this area are not real big on livestock. The only cows I have seen have been on the levee when we go to the Rizzo’s. We could really teach people in this area a thing or two about raising livestock, because there is so much wasted ground and grass around. Everyone eats meat and it could be another form of income to the people in this area.”

He says that being outside after dark is something that just isn’t done where he comes from in his native country. “Back in my part of South Africa, you do not go outside after 6 p.m. or you fear for your life. Dark is a time to be inside and safe. So, being outside all of these late hours in America is a little different for me.”

Froehlich left behind a mother and father, a brother, and a few girlfriends he chuckles about. He keeps his weekly checks because he’s single and doesn’t have anyone back home to support.

“I want to keep my money and save it so one day I can buy exotic animals and invite people to come pay me to shoot them. I also want to breed them. Like you Americans come to South Africa on big-money paid hunts, I want Americans to come to my place, so I am saving my money for that dream.”

As far as whether they’ll come back to America again to work after they return home in November, Froehlich and Retief say they will most definitely return and hope to come back to the Rizzo’s to work.

Van Eeden wasn’t so sure, “I do not know if I can leave my wife and child again for this long. Maybe if they can come and visit me once in a while, I will return. I am going to start that process when I return home in November getting it set up for her to come next season.”

All three agree that the experiences they have learned in the Delta will help them when they return home.

“We can show our families and farmer friends what we have learned and it will help us get better jobs at home until we can return again to work here in America.”