October 26, 2014
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A different sort of border patrol
Warwick man retires as a "plant watchdog"
Robert LaFrance, bottom left, was trained to be a customs inspector looking for potentially damaging plants and insects among the products imported to the U.S.A. He went from working for the USDA to working for Homeland Security since this picture was taken in 1969.

Who is Bob LaFrance?

Why, he is a CBPAS for the CBP, a division of USDA. He’s got a BS and an MA from URI and he’s a veteran of the RIAND. He’s worked for the ARS, PPC and PQ divisions of the USDA. “CBPAS” is bureaucracy-speak for a “Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialist.” His duties were primarily that of making sure that agricultural pests didn’t “hitch-hike” into the United States on imported plants and their products. Plant diseases and injurious insects have always entered the country in or on things like fruit, wood or flowers.

“It was my job to inspect any cargo coming into the country to be sure that they were not bringing in anything that would harm crops or native plants,” said LaFrance, who is currently in Florida, adjusting to his recent retirement from the Customs and Border Protection wing of what is now the Department of Homeland Security. “It used to be under the Department of Agriculture but it was folded into Homeland Security after 9/11.”

When you consider that most of the bugs and plants Americans don’t want in their yards, the hardest ones to control are the ones that were accidentally imported. The Japanese beetle, the gypsy moth and, more recently, the Asian longhorn beetles that have posed serious problems for native plants because the natural controls that kept those species in check in their own lands are not indigenous here. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to keep them out than it is to get rid of them after they get here.

According to the USDA, the longhorn beetles were discovered in New York on several hardwood trees in Brooklyn, New York, the Secretary of Agriculture declared an extraordinary emergency in order to combat the infestation with regulatory and control actions. Asian longhorn beetles have been introduced into the United States from wood pallets and other wood packing material accompanying cargo shipments from Asia.

The beetle infestation in New York spread to Long Island, Queens, and Manhattan. In 1998, a separate introduction of the beetle was discovered on trees in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Beetles were also detected in New Jersey. Most recently, beetles were detected in Worcester, Massachusetts in August 2008. Although they believe that they are on the verge of eradicating the beetle, it has been an expensive and time-consuming process. It’s a lot cheaper and more efficient to make sure they don’t get here in the first place.

Although nothing is foolproof, the most effective way to prevent them is quarantine and inspection, which is where LaFrance came in. It has been his job to study pests and research ways to control them. It doesn’t always mean taking a giant can of insecticide and dousing the cargo with it. It takes smarts.

“Once we know about a pest, we develop methods of making sure they don’t come in,” said LaFrance. “For instance, if we know that certain insects can’t survive below a certain temperature and that it takes a specific amount of time for its life cycle, we make sure that any containers or cargo that comes in has been stored at a certain temperature for a certain length of time before it is delivered...Sometimes wood products are heat treated or fumigated for wood-boring pests.”

LaFrance said he used to spend a lot of time in freight container yards, making sure that the cargo was clear of future pests before its taken out of the yard. It was a less complicated job when he started. What seemed like a convenient service for the agricultural industry has turned into a vital duty to ensure the security and health of the country. A terrorist attempt to undermine the American economy could easily come in the form of biological agents, like germs, viruses and infected cargo. It is now an issue of national security.

In 1967, when LaFrance began his career in agriculture, he had a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from the University of Rhode Island and served in the Rhode Island Air National Guard.

“I applied for domestic positions, as well as international programs,” recalls LaFrance. “The domestic ‘side’ got back to me first, so that’s where I started, in Greenville, Rhode Island.” LaFrance also received a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Rhode Island in 1973.

He has seen a lot of changes since he joined USDA, especially the way the names and priorities have morphed into the agency he officially retired from, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), now a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

But LaFrance’s primary duty and focus has remained the same throughout his career, protecting America’s agricultural economy and natural resources. His duty took him to many places around the world.

“I have been all over the world in the course of my career,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go to where the cargo is originating to make sure that they are following the best practices for importing things to this country before they leave theirs.”

LaFrance said his work has sent him to South Africa, Japan, the Philippines, Denmark, Belgium and many other places. He has trained local agricultural agents and farmers in California about battling the Mediterranean fruit fly in 1980 and 1982, working in New York’s Golden Nematode Program in 1977, and Florida’s Citrus Canker Eradication Project in 1984.

“It’s difficult to summarize all my work experiences,” admits LaFrance, “but I’ve enjoyed the entire journey. My work has always given me good support. I never viewed work as a chore.”

In a rare moment of clarity, LaFrance’s bosses in Homeland Security recognize that it would be stupid not to use LaFrance periodically when things get hectic and he has agreed to come back from time to time and go where he is needed. They pay him only for time he’s there and they get his expertise for a lot less money. That doesn’t bother him.

“It means I still get to travel,” said LaFrance. “That has always been one of the perks of the job.”

And his job remains the same: to ensure that unwanted pests don’t make the trip to the United States.


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