INTERNATIONAL FALLS - As northern Minnesota moves expectantly toward another wild rice harvest, there is a group of people working to insure that the tiniest of foreign invaders that could wreak …
INTERNATIONAL FALLS - As northern Minnesota moves expectantly toward another wild rice harvest, there is a group of people working to insure that the tiniest of foreign invaders that could wreak havoc with the crop don’t breach this country’s borders.
Agriculture specialists with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service don’t have the same visibility as their counterparts in immigration, but their effort to find and eliminate threats to agriculture production and consumption is vital to the protection of the nation’s food supply and agriculture-related industries.
Gene Krause oversees agricultural inspections at a number of checkpoints along the U.S.-Canadian border and he works out of the operation at International Falls. Krause said a number of recent discoveries in foreign shipments coming through International Falls could have had big impacts on agriculture in northern Minnesota.
“Some of the insects we’ve found have really been potential threats to either cultivated wild rice or the wild rice industry,” Krause said. “In the last month and a half we’ve found brown plant hopper, and this really damages the rice. It can reduce the yields of a rice crop or even in the wild almost 60 percent. It can be very destructive.”
Both the brown plant hopper and the zig zag leaf hopper, which Krause said was found in a shipment from Vietnam, pose dual threats to rice and other crops. Not only do they destroy by eating, they also carry harmful viruses that infect crops.
Timber harvesting is also part of agriculture, and boring Asian longhorn beetles can attack and devastate stands of dozens of species of trees, including maple, beech, birch, elm, ash, and cottonwood.
“Just in July we’ve found two or three shipments with longhorn beetles,” Krause said. “It’s very destructive to orchard plants, landscape trees, and forests. It’s considered one of the most destructive beetles in the U.S.”
Low tech, high efficiency
Ag specialists are tasked with inspecting all private and commercial traffic coming into the U.S., whether by road, rail, air, or sea.
“We’re involved with the processing of traffic from off the bridge, although it’s been greatly reduced this year from COVID-19,” Krause said. “Usually in the summertime you have lots of tourists, people going camping or vacationing, coming back and they still have a lot of food with them in their coolers. We’re looking for suspect insects or disease associated with those food items.”
Krause noted that while the risk in these situations is relatively low, there are still threats in Canada that make the vehicle inspection process necessary.
Logging trucks and train cars are scrutinized for any signs of wood-boring pests and diseases, including the notorious emerald ash borer that has been a concern for the past 10 to 15 years, Krause said.
When it comes to checking containers carried by train, the port has an ally in Canadian National Railway, which allows inspections to begin as they unload containers.
“At other locations, the cargo is placed out on the dock prior to the inspector getting there,” Krause said. “A big part of our success has been being there during that offload. You often see some movement (of insects) on those pallets.”
Krause’s team doesn’t use high-tech forensic investigation equipment to do inspections. Invaders are usually revealed by tools as common as a flashlight, a funnel, a bucket, and old-fashioned bug nets.
“It’s more on how we do our inspections rather than the tools that we’re using,” Krause said.
Something as simple as holding a flashlight at an angle will reveal otherwise unseen noxious weed seeds clinging to wooden pallets that shimmer brightly in just the right light, Krause said.
Another simple but more intricate technique involves suspending a funnel over a five-gallon bucket, with a dish full of soapy water below and a warm light above. Inspectors put leaves or wood into the funnel, and the heat from the light drives insects toward the funnel spout and a dive into the water dish to be collected for investigation.
Container floors and walls are swept and the residue is microscopically examined for possible threats.
“Our efficiency rate is one of the best in the nation as far as the amount of containers we target and the number we’ve found that I call positive,” Krause said. “Other ports across the nation have called on us to ask, ‘What are your ideas, what are your best practices,’ so we’ve certainly shared a lot of what we’ve done with other ports.”
However, Krause and his team don’t have to inspect every commercial truck and container, thanks to a rigid system of shipping permits and health inspections that have to be obtained before an international shipment ever reaches the border.
“We’re looking at paperwork all the time,” Krause said. “We’re looking for fraudulent certificates. We have to verify that a certificate meets all the requirements, that the safety and security features are on them. If we feel that’s ok, then we’re not so skeptical.”
For well-known shippers with good track records, the paperwork is often enough, Krause said. New shippers get greater scrutiny, including full inspections of their loads.
“Shippers improve themselves over time,” Krause said. “Their products are clean over time. That’s why we can rely on those certificates. If we can eliminate the lower-risk stuff, that allows us more time to focus on higher-risk shipments.”
Most of the time these tiny invaders are “hitchhiker pests” that manage to find their way into containers of all manner of goods. Other times, as in the case of rawhide dog chews, they may be present in the product itself. Krause said they get over 120 shipments of dog chews and rawhide products through International Falls each month, and they have to be sure the paperwork certifies that the original hides were not from diseased animals or from areas where diseases such as swine flu or “mad cow” disease are present.
And threats sometimes come from unexpected sources.
“Another big one we found was the khapra beetle; this is found primarily over in the Middle East,” Krause said. “It’s not really known to be found in China, but we’ve had two shipments since January that we’ve found khapra beetles in that came out of China. This is considered one of the world’s most destructive pests to grain and seeds. This could potentially lead to more emphasis on China’s goods because this beetle is such a huge threat to grain storage across the world.”