PLANT CITY, Fla. — McDonald Farms has ended its relationship with a major California grower-shipper and is growing and shipping strawberries through a new company.

Formerly aligned with Oxnard, Calif.-based Red Blossom when its principals grew and shipped as McDonald Farms, the new company, Sweet Life Farms LLC, is expanding acreage as it enters its second season.

Mark McDonald, Sweet Life’s manager and partner, said McDonald’s principals parted with Red Blossom on good terms.

“We’ve been in this deal for 30 years, so we needed to be able to have a little more hands-on approach,” McDonald said.

”We parted because it’s much easier to work on our own versus with someone in California. We packed for them last year, and this year they will buy from us in our label. They have a year-round business and hopefully we will continue a good relationship with them.”

Adding acreage

Sweet Life, which grows on its own acreage and sells for nine other growers, is increasing its acreage from 320 acres to 370 acres.

Although strawberries remain its focus, Sweet Life also grows cantaloupe and bell peppers in May and early June after the strawberries are finished, and it brokers other vegetables.

Mark McDonald, who has been in the strawberry business since 1977, said nephew Andy McDonald, farm manager and president of the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, remains the foundation of the company’s business in terms of production.

Mark McDonald called Andy McDonald energetic and highly knowledgeable about the deal.

Sweet Life began harvesting light volumes Nov. 19 and planned to ship heavier volumes by mid- to late December, Andy McDonald said.

“This is the time of the year that things need to look really good,” he said in early December.

“We can get some adverse weather, which can change things overnight, so we have to have something that looks very good now.”

McDonald said growers need strong December production and prices.

That’s in contrast to last season when Florida had excellent production that brought low prices, he said.

The early season typically brings high markets, McDonald said.

In his first year as leader of Florida’s strawberry trade organization, McDonald said he plans to serve a second term.

While board members can serve four-year terms before being required to rotate off the board, the group’s presidents serve one-year terms and are allowed only one additional term.

One of McDonald’s goals is to increase grower and handler membership.

He said the association represents about 65% of the deal’s acreage.

“If we can stand together, we can be one voice,” McDonald said.

“The association does tremendous behind-the-scenes work that most growers they represent don’t have any clue about. They find any kinds of regulations as well as water issues, changes in fumigants and are working hard, and we need them now more than ever.”

Mark McDonald and Ron Lovell are co-owners of the company along with Steve Howard, principal owner of Patterson Truck Brokers.

Shane McDonald, Mark McDonald’s son, handles accounting and sales while Jean Ann McDonald, Andy McDonald’s wife, does office work and food safety.

Jacob Lawton, son of Charles Lawton, former president and founder of Dixie Growers Inc., is also associated with Sweet Life’s operation.