Trahan expedites visas for migrant apple workers

Lori Trahan shakes hands with workers after her office helped them gain work visas

Congresswoman Lori Trahan, left, talking with Coyd Wiggins, second right, and Ed O’Neill talking over a basket of mcintosh apples at the Fairview Orchards
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AYER – J.P. Sullivan & Co. was able to personally thank Congresswoman Lori Trahan on Tuesday for her and her office’s efforts in bringing their workers in from Jamaica for the picking season.

Trahan visited the company’s shipping and packing facility in Ayer, along with one of the orchards the company owns in Groton, to tour both locations and meet some of the facilities’ migrant workers. The congresswoman’s office helped clarify a clerical error the company had with the Department of Homeland Security last month while it was trying to acquire visas for its 30 workers coming from Jamaica.

According to Ed O’Neill, president of the company, the New England Apple Council prepares the proper 14-page documentation to submit to Homeland Security for the workers to acquire visas. Though either Ed or his son Sean, who oversees operations at Fairview Orchards in Groton, usually initial the documents before sending them to Homeland Security, Ed O’Neill said the documents were sent to the department without an initial. He said that he wasn’t sure why the documents weren’t initialed before being sent to Homeland Security. O’Neill added that the company was not made aware of this error because Homeland Security sent the documents back to a different address in Ayer.

“So we were waiting for our approval and thought, ‘What’s the problem?’ Then they said, ‘You never responded to the deficiency,’ ” O’Neill said. “We didn’t get that, so what were we going to do?”

O’Neill said that the company should’ve gotten approval from Homeland Security on Aug. 15 so that the workers could book their flights and be prepared for work by Aug. 31. With this “snafu,” as he referred to it, the company contacted Trahan’s office for help. By Aug. 29, the visas were approved and workers started the season on Sept. 10. O’Neill noted how the workers at Fairview Orchard usually pick about 125 bushels of apples a day during the season

“Without these guys, it’s over,” he added. “We could not find American workers to do this. We have almost half-a-million invested in this land. Most of the large commercial growers in Massachusetts are now out of the commercial business. They’ve gone for ‘agritainment,’ as they call it, with hayrides, pick your own apples, cider, all that stuff.”

  • Congresswoman Lori Trahan, right, observing an apple with Ned O’Neill, vice president of J.P. Sullivan & Co., at the company’s packing and shipping facility.

  • An overlook of the packaging work done inside J.P. Sullivan & Co.’s packing and shipping facility

  • Congresswoman Lori Trahan and J.P. Sullivan & Co. Vice Present Ned O’Neill at the company’s shipping and packing facility

  • Apples being bagged at the J.P. Sullivan & Co.’s packing and shipping facility

  • Congresswoman Lori Trahan, right, and Ed O’Neill, center, talking with Coyd Wiggins at the Fairview Orchard about his time working at the orchards while visiting from Jamaica

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As she toured the facility and the orchard, Trahan complimented the company for being “vertically integrated” with its orchards and packing facility. She also noted the innovation the company provided through the equipment and the workers.

“People would die to have the retention you have,” she said during the tour. “I’m glad I get to see this up close.”

Trahan said she was contacted by the company in late August about the visa issue and had less than a week to push the paperwork through the proper channels in order for the workers to come to the Nashoba Valley area in time for the picking season.

“It would’ve sunk their business, so we had to get up to speed pretty quickly on where that paperwork nightmare lived and we had to sort it out,” she explained. “We didn’t have a lot of time to deal with it. There were plane tickets being bought and paperwork to file and square away. But it worked out and I got to see the fruit of that labor today, no pun intended, which was pretty cool.”