NCDA&CS plant industry staff helps businesses keep exports moving
Chris Elder, a plant protection specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, takes a moisture reading from the wood in order to approve a phytosanitary certificate for .
Work is busy for Chris Elder, a plant protection specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Plant Industry Division. In the past two years, Elder and other plant protection specialists have seen a surge in requests for phytosanitary certificates to export plants and plant products out of the country.
"A few years ago, phytosanitary work was only about 10 percent of my job," Elder said. "Now, it takes up about 50 percent of my time."
That percentage varies from one plant protection specialist to another depending in part on what area of the state he works in, but clearly the demand is increasing.
Phytosanitary certificates are a critical piece in the export trade puzzle. All countries have requirements for incoming plant-based products such as lumber, tobacco and bulk containers of cotton, soybeans, peanuts, corn and other commodities. Elder's work helps North Carolina businesses, farms, and lumber and nursery operations comply with these requirements.
Similar to other countries, the United States has its own set of requirements for plant-based products moving into the states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates the importation of plants and plant products to safeguard U.S. agriculture and natural resources from the risks associated with the entry, establishment or spread of animal and plant pests and noxious weeds.
However, USDA does not regulate the shipment of plant-based materials out of the U.S. Instead, staff members help businesses meet the requirements of receiving countries that also want to prevent unwanted entry of plant pests and invasive species.
"Some businesses are not aware of phytosanitary requirements until their shipment is held up in a foreign country," said Susan Kostelecky, who heads the phytosanitary program in North Carolina for USDA. "If a container gets held up at port, it can cost several hundreds of dollars a day, so it is cost-prohibitive when that happens. It is better to get the paperwork and inspection done before a shipment leaves the United States so it won't be detained unnecessarily."
The USDA is responsible for implementing the export program; however, given the workload and distribution of federal staff in the state, a cooperative agreement between USDA and NCDA&CS enables state plant protection specialists to also assist with the issuance of phytosanitary certificates.
USDA has 12 staff members statewide who review products and product requirements for shipments and are able to issue phytosanitary certificates. To enhance and provide additional critical support across the state, NCDA&CS has 19 plant protection specialists trained and capable of evaluating export requirements and issuing phytosanitary certificates.
Having these extra resources in the field has helped meet the increasing demand for this service, said Kostelecky, who has worked in this field for more than 30 years and has also seen the strong growth in requests. "It's been growing every year; easily 10 to 15 percent and that's probably conservative," she said.
But the biggest benefit is on the business end, where delays in gaining certificates can mean lost or delayed sales.
Elder has been working with Beard Hardwoods for the past 18 months, augmenting a weekly USDA visit and helping the business get the proper approvals needed to export kiln-dried hardwoods. It is a service the company pays for through phytosanitary certification fees. With exports representing around 80 percent of the company's business, it is critical that inspections happen in a timely manner.
"Having somebody here twice a week makes a huge difference," said Derick Shular, vice president of sales for Beard Hardwoods in Greensboro. "We produce things some days where we will have it inspected the same day and it's on the container the same day. Without that we're talking about building five to 10 extra loads of inventory, which we really don't have the space for. It helps cash flow and helps everything related to fast shipping, so it's really helped our overall business."
Situated just off Interstate 40, this third generation family-owned company has been in business for 78 years and employs 25 to 30 people. Shular said the company buys green lumber from sawmills across the state, cuts and kiln dries it before packing it into shipping containers to ship overseas. The company started exporting in the 1970s to Japan. On average, the business ships 80 to 100 containers of lumber a month.
"We've doubled our business in the last two years, and that's really a factor of increasing production, figuring out how to get the supply, get the customers and get everything through the system," Shular said.
On a recent visit, Elder inspected loads of wood bound for Vietnam and China. As part of the inspection, he used a moisture meter to determine the moisture content of the wood. Removing the moisture from the wood through the kiln drying process decreases the chances that any insects could survive during shipping. Where heat treatment is appropriate for lumber and logs, the process is different for every commodity. For example, grains must be fumigated and other plant products may need to be treated with an insecticide or fungicide.
While Beard prefers to have its products inspected on site, other companies opt to have their products inspected at a port, depending on their production schedule. In addition to its own field inspectors, USDA maintains an office at the port in Wilmington, where containers arriving at the port for export can be inspected Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. While the phytosanitary fee is the same wherever the inspection is done, there may be additional port fees associated with having the product inspected there, which some companies prefer to avoid.
The highly cooperative relationship between USDA and NCDA&CS provides North Carolina-based companies with the most flexibility and timeliness for the issuance of phytosanitary certificates. When businesses contact USDA for information about obtaining phytosanitary certificates, Kostelecky said they are given both state and federal contacts. The companies can choose what works best with their organization's schedule.
USDA maintains a plant export database with requirements for each country. Whenever Elder or one of his counterparts needs assistance with the interpretation of the export requirements, they call on Kostelecky for advice. "Requirements do change from time to time, but countries are required to report to the World Trade Organization when they are requiring new shipping controls," she said.
Kostelecky credits a global marketplace and the state of the economy with the rise in exports. "Folks are looking for other avenues to market their commodities," she said, adding that it is a trend she expects to see continue.
Kostelecky grew up on a tobacco farm in Johnston County and understands how important international markets are to farm commodities and businesses. It is part of the reason she loves what she does, knowing she is helping businesses reach new customers. Lumber, tobacco and nursery materials are the top three plant-based export products that Kostelecky sees.
Elder is also proud of his division's contributions to the export program.
"Working with the exporters to ensure their shipment arrives with no problem is challenging, but highly rewarding, and clearly contributes in a major way to this state's economy," Elder said.
Derick Shular, right, of Beard Hardwoods shows Chris Elder, left, which stacks
of kiln-dried wood is ready for inspection.