Well, I Declare

Where do the agriculture forms go when you fill them out? We found out.

Sighing in our airline seats, we’ve all filled out yet another red-and-white state Department of Agriculture form. But did you ever wonder what happens to them after that? 

The state declaration forms are required on domestic flights coming into Hawaii; international flights are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Giving out the forms, and ensuring that they are completed, is the responsibility of the airline, says Domingo Cravalho, inspection and compliance section chief with the Department of Agriculture’s plant quarantine branch.   

Forms are handed off to baggage handlers, who place them on the luggage carousel for an inspector to screen before people start claiming their bags. If a declaration form is flagged as high risk—for example, someone bringing in citrus from Florida—the inspector has to locate the passenger, either by making an announcement or by putting their name on a dry-erase board and walking around at baggage claim. “If it’s low risk, we’ll follow up with a phone call,” says Cravalho. Offending items are destroyed.

The other side of the form is of keen interest to the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, which scrutinizes tourism patterns. In 2006, 2,898,072 forms were processed, or a response rate of 93 percent of travelers. (One adult can fill out a form on behalf of the family.)

“Our vendor, currently SMS Research, collects the forms daily at the airports and scans them,” says DBEDT’s chief of the tourism research branch, Daniel Nahoopii.  “We publish the data as monthly statistics, as well as annual reports, and the forms are shredded. The forms are never used for marketing purposes, only for research and it’s all reported in aggregate. This serves an important purpose—that data is used by the hotel industry, retail, small businesses. On the government side, it can affect our bond ratings.”

Still, for the Department of Agriculture, the biggest concern isn’t a banana or how many West Coast visitors are arriving. It’s worried about something slithery. The department’s No. 1 task is to clear flights that come in from high-risk brown-tree snake areas, explains Cravalho. “Sometimes, there are jokers who declare a snake. But then they say, ‘In my pants.’” The department is also in charge of clearing those amnesty bins, removing discarded fruit and the occasional corsage. “One year, we found a ball python in the bin. It was sitting on the inspector’s tongs.”

He’s grateful when people—especially residents—fill out the forms. “The term ‘honor system’ has been used and that’s a true statement,” Cravalho says.