WAKEFIELD — In Barry Pennacchini’s homeland, it’s only two hours’ travel from southern coastline to flatland to desert to the mountains.
For the South African native, his country displays features similar to those in the United States, but it just takes longer in the U.S. to get to them all.
Pennacchini is a seasonal employee of Central Valley Ag in Wakefield, a member-owned farmers cooperative. Sponsored by his brother, Pennacchini was allowed into the United States for temporary agricultural work — along with other foreign CVA employees — under an H-2A visa.
He’s been coming to America for the past three years and hopes to obtain a more permanent green card soon. In the meantime, he arrives in February or March each year, working through November and going back home during Nebraska’s winter months.
Back home is Jeffreys Bay, primarily a retirement community, beaches attract fishermen and whale watchers, surfers and tourists. The city is surrounded by farms. Over the years, Jeffreys Bay has grown from a sleepy little fishing village into one of the fastest-expanding urban areas in South Africa.
Seasons in South Africa are opposite from those in Nebraska, Pennacchini explained.
“When it’s cold here, it’s hot there,” he said, noting he’s too old to appreciate Nebraska’s snowy weather. “It’s fine. I’m used to it now.”
Nebraska food is “way different” from South African cuisine, according to Pennacchini.
“There’s quite a big difference taste-wise. We don’t deep fat fry everything,” he said with a chuckle, although in South Africa they also enjoy McDonald’s and KFC franchises.
When Pennacchini has time, he does his own cooking, although he has to hunt for some ingredients that can be scarce.
“If I look hard enough, I can find them,” he said, although he brings some ingredients along with him when he returns to the United States each year.
John Geewe, a longtime Central Valley Ag employee, has tried his hand at baking South African dishes for Pennacchini, including a milk tart. Similar to a custard pie made with milk and eggs, a milk tart has a crust made from biscuits, better known in the U.S. as shortbread cookies.
Pennacchini is a man who’s used to traveling, having lived in Israel for a time on a kibbutz, or collective farm, where he spent time working in the kibbutz’s dairy, orchard and factory. He also lived on a moshav, with individual farms within an agricultural community, governed by an elected council and financed through a special tax.
“You have to love your fellow man,” Pennacchini said of this type of communal lifestyle, “because you’ll be living in his back pocket.”
Pennacchini also has floated in the Dead Sea in the Jordan Rift Valley and traveled down the Nile River, among other excursions.
“I’ve been to a few countries,” he said.
Helping him in his travels is the fact that Pennacchini speaks several languages: English, of course; Afrikaans, a daughter of the Dutch language; plus Hebrew.
Even though all speak English at the Wakefield CVA plant, “we don’t understand each other at all,” he said, with a smile.
Pennacchini will be heading back home now that harvest is finished. Although it’s beautiful country, crime is rampant in South Africa.
“It’s safer here for one year with (COVID-19) than one day at South Africa,” Pennacchini said.
In Nebraska, for instance, folks have dogs as pets; in South Africa they’re needed for security. In Nebraska, guns are used for hunting; in South Africa they’re needed for protection because a person can expect to be robbed.
Even the police force is corrupt, Pennacchini said. Security fences are built around homes, and seven to eight farmers are killed each week so that the gangs doing the killing can grab onto the land.
Even so, South Africa is worth seeing, Pennacchini said. Tourism is one of the strongest industries in a country at the southernmost tip of a continent where it’s only a short drive from coastline to desert to the mountains.