Chew a leaf and you’ll quickly understand the claim that stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar is probably on the conservative side.

The dark green leaves grow 2-3 inches long on waist high plants and are harvested and dried, much like tobacco.

Stevia leaves have very little smell even when ripped apart, but a couple of chews into even part of one of the small leaves is something akin to eating a large spoonful of sugar — it’s sweet, but not exactly like sugar.

Stevia is native to Paraguay and has been grown in parts of South America for hundreds of years. It is an all natural, non-nutritive, no calorie sweetener. It is used extensively in Paraguay and surrounding countries as a sweetener.

Stevia is being grown for the first time this year in research plots and in commercial fields in North Carolina and Georgia. While it’s not likely to replace cotton and corn any time soon, Stevia does present an interesting opportunity for a few farmers in the Southeast.

The crop is grown much like tobacco says Phillip Winslow, superintendent of the Caswell Research Farm in Kinston, N.C. He says they planted the crop using transplants and a reconfigured tobacco planter that also resembles a sweet potato transplanter.

So far, Winslow says weeds have been the biggest problem in growing the crop.

Obviously, there’s not many herbicides, really only one, labeled for use on the crop. The good news is Stevia doesn’t have many natural pest enemies in the Southeast — at least not yet.

Hal Teegarden, vice-president of agriculture operations for Sweet Green Fields, says his company is committed to building acreage of stevia in the Southeast. “Our home office is in Bellingham, Wash., and we contract with farmers out there to grow it for our company.”

Teegarden, who worked for a number of years in the tobacco industry, says Sweet Green Fields saw the need for expanding operations into other parts of the U.S. and the Southeast was a natural place because of the similarity between growing stevia and growing tobacco and sweet potatoes.

In most cases when a new crop comes into an area there are costs associated with buying or building the technology needed to grow it.

With stevia in the Southeast, the technology involved with equipment needed to plant, harvest and dry a crop, like tobacco, has been around for a long time.

In many cases the equipment needed is already there and growers know how to use it, which speeds up the learning curve on growing stevia, Teegarden says.