Fri | Jan 22, 2021

UGLI conquers disease

Published:Thursday | August 17, 2017 | 12:00 AMAvia Collinder
UGLI fruit tree
Chairman of Trout Hall Limited, Gordon Sharp, speaks in an interview with Gleaner Business on August 16, 2017.

One of Jamaica's least known but paradoxically popular citrus fruits appears to be weathering the greening and other diseases that have shrunk national supplies of other fresh fruit, through replanting of the orchard.

For more than 80 years, the family that owns the Trout Hall estate in Clarendon and properties in other parishes has been producing UGLI, a registered trademarked citrus fruit classified as a tangelo, but grown only in Jamaica.

The fruit is not sold in Jamaica, however, but exported mainly to North America and Europe.

Trout Hall Chairman Gordon Sharp says his family has battled over time to safeguard the UGLI trademark, which is registered in more than 70 countries through Cabel Hall Citrus Limited. Now, he says, he would consider licensing out the name if investors made the right proposal.

In an interview with Gleaner Business, Sharp also said that while he has no plans to actively sell the family estate, he would be willing to consider an offer of around US$10 million. And deal around the UGLI brand would be separate.

There is a listing on at least one realtor's website advertising 450 acres of the Trout Hall property for sale. However, Sharp said the listing was put up years ago, and they never got any serious offers.

Trout Hall still owns and operates some 1,250 hectares, which translates to around 3,000 acres.

At one time, Trout Hall was best known for the manufacture of a popular brand of orange juice bearing the same name, but that business faltered, was placed in receivership back in the 1980s, and subsequently shuttered.

The Trout Hall orange juice brand has survived, but is licensed to a United Kingdom manufacturer, who distributes it in Europe.

The Jamaican estate is now focused on growing sugar cane and UGLI. Two-thirds of the property is dedicated to cane and the remainder to the tangelo, Sharp said. Family-owned companies include Trout Hall Limited, which produces for export, Cabel Hall, the owner of the UGLI brand, and F.G. Sharp & Company.

With a rind as wrinkled as a bulldog's hide, the UGLI fruit has improved on that look over time. The original tree is believed to have been a hybrid formed from the Seville orange, the grapefruit and the tangerine families. It was discovered growing wild in Jamaica in 1924 and later developed by the Sharp family into the commercial variety now in production.

The first exports began in the 1930s; registration of the trademark was in 1938.

"UGLI is a registered trademark, under which we market the tangelo that we developed. It's become very well known; it's a boutique crop," said Sharp.

"It was discovered in the Brown's Town area, and my father and uncle went there as young men and brought the budwood to Trout Hall. Over the years, they bred new strains of it to get rid of some of the seeds and improve appearance," he said.

It is now grown and exclusively exported by Trout Hall to markets all over the world. Demand is almost equally divided between main markets, United States and the European Union.

"It is primarily used for eating as a fresh fruit; not processed. We do not process any," Sharp said. "In our promotion, we do have several recipes that we recommend ... . It makes a lovely yoghurt and it goes very well with fish, particularly the rind."

Production of the fruit fluctuates in the region of 70,000 to 100,000 cartons a year. Each carton may hold between 14 and 72 fruit as UGLI grows in various sizes.

"The different markets require different sizes. The US requires the larger fruit, and the Europeans prefer the medium-sized to smaller fruit. It is quite convenient," the chairman said.

The fruit bound for European markets is shipped to Holland and distributed from there, he said. Sharp said the fruit is highly perishable, which affects the price, but that UGLI fetches between US$15 and US$30 per box at its distribution points in the market.

"We have marketing reps that sell and distribute in the various markets. Some of them are wholesale markets and some of them are importer-distributors," he said.

He declined to share retail prices, but said Trout Hall gets "about 20 per cent" of what UGLI sells for overseas.

UGLI exports have been fairly steady. Production in 2016 was affected by a spell of dry weather in 2015. The crop year extends from November to March.

Said Sharp: "2015 was quite a good year; 2016 was not so wonderful."

While Trout Hall was affected by the citrus tristeza virus (CTV) that has hobbled citrus production on farms across Jamaica, Sharp said his family has replanted substantial acreages with resistant root stock.

"All the growth up until about 1993 was planted on sour orange root, which is susceptible to CTV. We have changed that," he said, while noting the replanting continues.

New trees, he said, last for 30 years.

There is a tangelo available for sale locally that is grown in Trelawny, Sharp said, but noted he is not inclined to follow suit as it could create problems for Trout Hall from praedial larcenists, a term referencing thieves of agricultural products.

"The praedial market only works if you have a local market," he said.