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African American Impacting Agriculture

By Cokeitha Gaddist

Walterboro native Sylvester “Syl” Stephens has turned his childhood love of the great outdoors into a lifelong career, something that he says lets him live out his passion every day through his job.
Stephens is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agriculture Specialist with the US Department of Homeland Security. He is currently the only African American specialist in the State of South Carolina.
“I love my job and the mission to protect America’s agriculture,” says Stephens.
On a typical day, CBP welcomes nearly 1 million visitors in the US, inspects more than 67,000 cargo containers and averages more than $3 trillion in a legitimate trade that enhances the Nation’s global economy. According to Stephens, CBP mission is to safeguard America’s boarder while protecting the public from dangerous people and materials.
“My job is to help make sure that everything from the food you eat to the foreign cars you drive don’t bring deadly insects, diseases or other pests into our country or the State of South Carolina, he says.
Stephens says he always knew he wanted a career in agriculture and initially wanted to be a Game Warden with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In High School, he participated in the Summer program with the Virginia Forrest Service and spent more time outdoors than indoors.

After he graduated from Walterboro High School, Stephens attended Clemson University. From there, he graduated with a degree in Forestry Management. He was an active member of Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences, his senior year at Clemson he had the opportunity to intern with the US Forestry Services in Oregon.
After graduating from Clemson, Stephens immediately landed a job with Westvaco as a Forestry tech and worked for six months, after which he received a call about an opportunity with the South Carolina Forestry Commission as a project forester. He worked there for three years. At that time, he was the only African-American forester in the State of South Carolina. Stephens says he was responsible for helping landowners in Jasper, Beaufort and Hampton Counties plan and develop their land for agriculture as well as assist with state and federal funding.
Stephens has worked for CBP and the US Department of Homeland Security for the past 15 years. His supervisor, Stephen Switzer says he is an integral part of their team and a senior inspector who leads by example and understands the importance of the mission.
“Sylvester has a passion for his job and is a true asset, not to mention everyone loves him and his positive attitude,” said Switzer. Stephens has received two Customs and Boarder Protection Citation Recognitions from Head Quarters in Washington, DC for making two very significant discoveries that would have been disastrous for the US: Stephens found a bird tick brought in from Pakistan stuck to a piece of packing tape and an Asian gypsy moth found in a car shipping container. These two such pests would have damaged millions of trees and plants causing serious damage to our country’s landscape and natural resources.
“I feel like I’m playing a part to help protect and keep food and products safe for everyone to enjoy, for my family and yours,” says Stephens. “I love that I get to do what I love every day and know that it makes a difference,” he said. Stephens says everyone can play a part to protect US agriculture by simply being conscious of the things they bring back into the country when traveling abroad on vacation especially things like handmade souvenirs, food or other items.
Stephens now lives in Walterboro with his wife Leslie. They have two children, Racheen and Heyward. When asked what he’s most proud of, Stephens said he’s proud of being a great father to his kids, having a close relationship with God and being the man his parents raised him to be. He and his family attend First Assembly of God Church in Walterboro, where he leads the Men’s Group and helps coordinate community service and outreach projects.
“I have a soft spot for helping people, if I can make someone laugh or smile and help bring joy to their life then I‘ve made a difference not just with my job but with how I live my life,” says Stephens.

Special to The Colletonian (1926 Posts)