It's never a dull day in the life of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agriculture Specialist. Combining expertise in the natural sciences with the discipline of working in a fast-paced law enforcement environment, Agriculture Specialists are trained to serve as experts in the area of agricultural inspection, border intelligence, analysis, examination and enforcement activities.
Each year, millions of pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, herbs and other agricultural items enter the United States via commercial shipments from around the world. Although these items may appear harmless to the untrained eye, Agriculture Specialists are trained to detect hidden threats in passenger baggage, truckloads, trainloads and containers of agricultural imports that could potentially threaten U.S. agriculture, our natural resources and our economy. Agriculture Specialists at U.S. ports of entry and international mail facilities target, detect, intercept, and prevent the entry of these potential threats before they have a chance to do any harm. Annually, these specialists intercept tens of thousands of actionable pests, or those identified through scientific risk assessment and study as being dangerous to the health and safety of U.S. agricultural resources.
CBP Agriculture Specialists, armed with science-based degrees in the areas of botany, entomology, biology or plant pathology, have the knowledge to recognize questionable and dangerous agricultural commodities, flag them for inspection, and oversee their testing or destruction. Agriculture Specialists also educate travelers about why certain agricultural commodities and meat products are seized. This is a job of details; however, they are important details to ensuring the safety of our Nation. Agriculture Specialists perform their mission at more than 300 ports of entry located at airports, seaports and land borders throughout the United States and along the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Agriculture Specialists also check containers and trucks for smuggled agricultural products or packaging materials that might contain invasive species that could harm our agriculture and environment, examine wooden pallets that could hide the larvae of wood-boring insects poised to attack native trees or nursery stock and make sure that imported fruits and vegetables are pest free. Agriculture Specialists work with specialized x-ray machines that detect organic materials and utilize agricultural canines specifically trained to sniff out meat and plant materials in international airport passenger areas.
In order to successfully execute its mission, CBP must attract men and women of good character, integrity and high motivation. CBP Agriculture Specialists combine their expertise in the natural sciences with the discipline of working in a fast-paced law enforcement environment to complete this mission.
Michael DiBlasi, Chief CBP Agriculture Specialist for the Miami International Airport, describes his role in protecting the American homeland as a matter of duty. DiBlasi recalls that during the summer of 2001, he began to consider changing careers from his work in the private sector. Although he enjoyed a successful career in management within the field of animal research, he felt that it wasn't enough for him and that he truly wanted to "make a greater impact on the world around him." It was around this same time that an opportunity presented itself to him on September 9, 2001, just two short days prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11th. DiBlasi accepted a position with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a Plant Protection and Quarantine Officer (PPQO) not knowing that, like the rest of us, his world was about to forever change. As a native New Yorker, DiBlasi vividly recalls his feelings of renewed purpose on 9/11, just two days into his Federal career. His USDA position was later transitioned to a CBP Agriculture Specialist position at the Miami Seaport.
DiBlasi also recounts the myriad of mixed emotions he experienced in the days following 9/11 as he embarked on his new career protecting the homeland, so far away from his home town. He felt conflicted in his desire to be there for his family members still residing in New York and that, on some level, he had somehow deserted his friends, family and fellow New Yorkers because he wasn't there. These feelings of confusion and helplessness were soon replaced by a deep sense of empowerment and a renewed sense of purpose in his roles as a PPQO and Agriculture Specialist. "My extensive experience in a multitude of roles as a CBP Agriculture Specialist in both air cargo and passenger settings has given me the meaningful purpose I had always longed for in my career, along with the ability to protect my country and hometown," said DiBlasi.
CBP Agriculture Specialist Canine Handler Thanuja "Tonni" Hall, currently the Program Manager for the Agriculture Canine Program within the Office of Field Operations Agriculture Programs & Trade Liaison for CBP in Washington, D.C., fondly recalls her days working in the Miami Airport with her canine partner, Saint.
"I vividly remember my amazement with Saint's ability to sniff out hidden agricultural items with extraordinary accuracy," she said. "Saint could find as many as six bags full of plant material or as little as one leaf in the pocket of a suitcase. The high level of attention to detail that our canine partners provide is instrumental in protecting our homeland against the threat of invasive pests and foreign animal diseases. Working with Saint was one of the most fulfilling, exciting, and rewarding experiences of my life."
In her current role, Hall frequently interacts with canine teams across the country to ensure that this program is properly safeguarding our homeland. CBP Agriculture Specialist Canine Handlers and their canines serve a vital role in detecting fruits, vegetables, meats or other prohibited items that may carry animal and plant diseases, or pests entering the United States, intentionally or by accident, which can cause serious damage to America's crops, livestock, pets, environment and economy. CBP Agriculture Specialists interested in working within the Canine Enforcement Program must attend a 10 to 13 week New Canine Handler training course provided by the USDA in Newnan, GA. These positions are available based on the needs of the mission in the ports of entry.
CBP Agriculture Specialist Robin Wall serves as CBP's California Agriculture Liaison providing an essential link between the USDA, California's Department of Food and Agriculture and the Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison at CBP Headquarters in Washington, D.C. She fosters stronger relationships, enhances communication and facilitates the flow of information to promote the agriculture inspection mission of CBP.
Wall is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force with almost 20 years of combined Federal and state experience in agriculture-related positions of progressive responsibility within the California Department of Food and Agriculture, USDA, and CBP.
"As a veteran, joining CBP as an Agriculture Specialist was a natural fit due to the paramilitary nature of CBP's mission and the continued opportunity to make a significant impact in protecting our way of life," she said. "Having veterans join the ranks of CBP as Agriculture Specialists greatly strengthen the mission effectiveness of CBP."
In her opinion, veterans bring military bearing, inherent respect for the chain of command and the passion to continue serving the mission at hand.
"Several years after my honorable separation from the Air Force, I later regretted not joining the Air Force Reserves; I still had a strong desire to continue serving my country," she noted. "However, my work with CBP as an Agriculture Specialist has allowed me to continue serving my country with the added advantage of utilizing my scientific background to protect the country on a larger scale. I serve in the field of agriculture because I care about protecting the natural environment and I believe that this is a vital role in the mission of protecting my state and country."
The extensive expertise of CBP Agriculture Specialists like Michael DiBlasi, Thanuja "Tonni" Hall, and Robin Wall help to curtail the spread of harmful pests and plant and animal diseases, whether intentional or unintentional, to American farms and food supplies. The CBP team of highly trained professionals enjoy one of the highest reputations in Federal law enforcement. CBP Agriculture Specialists use their scientific education and training in making a tangible difference in both the daily lives and the future of the American people while playing a critical role in the Department of Homeland Security.