Ag inspectors clean up pests and weeds on the US-Canada border

PEMBINA, North Dakota – They’re tucked away on shipping containers or in trucks at the U.S. border, threatening to undermine the American way of life.

They are like the khapra beetle, the twirler moth, and harmful weeds like the hogweed.

But thanks to the work of agricultural specialists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many are stopped before they can enter the United States. They also make sure that the amount of hay doesn’t hide any marijuana.

A truck carrying hay approaches the U.S. border with Canada in Pembina, North Dakota on Monday, November 15, 2021. Monday is a busy day at the Pembina port of entry when nearly 1,000 trucks could pass from Canada to the US Trevor Peterson / Agweek for free

“When they do inspections, it’s basically manual labor,” said Kristi Lakefield, a customs and border protection spokeswoman in Portal, North Dakota, where inspecting containers being shipped by rail is its primary responsibility.

Lakefield said the passage at Portal is the fifth largest station in the country by the number of containers. The crossing at International Falls, Minnesota is the busiest. Around 800,000 containers were handled in the International Falls Port of Entry in the 2020 financial year. Portal handled around 310,000 containers in the same period.

In Pembina, North Dakota, about 500 trucks from Canada could pass through on an average day. On a busy Monday it can be closer to 1,000.

The ag specialists search for possible stowaways on pallets, on the bottom of containers and elsewhere. The inspectors also check that a product complies with the information in a shipping manifest. On November 15, a truckload of grass seed from Germany was pulled into the Pembina control area. An inspector cut open a bag to look for harmful weed seeds.

After a career in agriculture, Neil Halley became the Agricultural Inspector for Customs and Border Protection in Pembina, North Dakota. Jeff Beach / Agweek for free

“We find something every other day,” said Neil Halley, agriculture specialist for customs and border protection at Pembina. Halley taught agricultural education in St. John, North Dakota before joining the CBP.

To become an agricultural inspector, you must have a four-year degree in a science field such as biology and then complete specialized training with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On Monday, November 15, an ag inspector in the port of entry in Pembina searched a sample of grass seeds that was taken from a sack that was shipped from Germany. Ag inspectors look for harmful weed seeds in samples from trucks. Trevor Peterson / Agweek for free

According to Lakefield, if something suspicious is found, a photo can be sent to a pest identifier for confirmation that same day. Sometimes the physical sample needs to be sent for positive identification, which can take about a week.

Meanwhile, the suspicious containers are pulled from the train or truck to wait at the border. Sometimes a container can be fumigated and can then continue south. Other times they are sent back to Canada and the country of origin.

Some examples of the findings ag inspectors make on the border are:

Pembina: Halley said inspectors found twice the khapra beetle, one of the ten most wanted insects in the world that feeds on stored grain. One express courier shipment contained giant hogweed seeds, a harmful weed. Pumpkin seeds (squash), brassica (cabbage) and buckwheat seeds were also found in the. The shipment did not have the required seed certificates to enter the United States.

International Falls: There inspectors caught a container with Cerambycidae (longhorn beetles) and Gracillarioidea (leaf-spot miner’s spinner) and Imperata cylindrica, a federal pest. The container was re-exported to Taiwan.

This vertebrate moth is an example of the pest found on containers on the US-Canada border. Photo submitted free of charge by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Portal: Gelechioidea, a twirler or curved horn moth, was found in a shipment of steel wheels from Vietnam and the container was returned there.

The steel delivery from Vietnam shows that not only Ag shipments are suspect. Lakefield said containers, pallets, or products stored outside before entering Canada and the United States can carry weeds and pests. Used equipment or heavy machinery can carry contaminated clumps of dirt.

Lakefield said many of the containers arrived in Canada via British Columbia before crossing the US border.

“A lot of goods come from the Pacific region,” she said. “If you look at a long chain of railcars crossing the landscape,” you don’t really know the backstory. ”

As the vehicles pass through the Pembina Port of Entry, the drivers and passengers may not know, but everyone will be checked for radiation. Every shipment that exceeds a certain threshold is checked. Some materials, like potash, have naturally occurring radiation and can still propagate south.

The border guards have another scan tool at their disposal – a gamma scanner that works like a giant X-ray machine.

Some trucks are pulled into a metal building for scanning. The driver exits the vehicle into a waiting area while scanners drive along the tracks on either side of the truck and send images to the inspectors.

A random truck hits the Pembina port of entry for a gamma scan on Monday, November 15th. Scanners on the tracks on either side of the truck provide customs and border guards with images of what’s inside. Jeff Beach / Agweek for free

Pembina Assistant Area Port Director Christopher Misson cited an example from the spring of 2021 when a load of hay arrived in a container. The gamma-ray scanner detected what he called an anomaly in the back third of the load. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that this anomaly was marijuana. The case was then referred to local law enforcement for criminal prosecution.

Christopher Misson is the Pembina Deputy Area Port Director for Customs and Border Protection. Trevor Peterson / Agweek for free

Some trucks are drawn to scan at random and at other times because the inspectors’ training and experience have grown suspicious.

“Some things just jump out,” said Misson, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

The Pembina, North Dakota, port of entry. Trevor Peterson / Agweek for free

After an initial screening at the Pembina Port of Entry, trucks carrying cattle will be sent to USDA vets before continuing south on Interstate 29.

Mike Stepien of the USDA’s Animal and Phytosanitary Inspection Service said animals destined for slaughter are subject to a less stringent inspection process in port as they receive further inspections by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, usually within a day or so of the time Import.

Animals imported for breeding purposes will be screened more closely as those animals are expected to become part of the U.S. herd, Stepien said.

Stepien makes sure that the animals are in generally good health and show no signs of disease, and there are controls to ensure that the necessary tests have been carried out. In order to guarantee traceability, the animals must also comply with the import labeling requirement.

Vesicular lesions in pigs, cattle ages at risk of developing bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and farmed deer that fail the brucellosis testing requirement are common problems in farm animals, Stepien said.

Halley said fresh meat will be sent to an inspector in Pembina city, but packaged meat will be inspected by his staff. He said inspectors sometimes found “bushmeat” from Africa, which is susceptible to disease.

“These agricultural seizures show the important priority that customs and border protection have in our agricultural control program at our ports of entry,” said Misson.

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