In the Southeast, Teegarden says stevia can be grown as a rain-fed crop, which gives the region a big advantage over production in other parts of the country, which rely on irrigation to produce the crop.

“The North Carolina Department of Agriculture is always interested in helping farmers find new crops to grow and to help them develop markets with these crops, so it was a natural for us to put in tests here at the Caswell Research Farm,” Winslow says.

From a personal perspective, he says, the challenge of growing something naturally that can replace artificial sweeteners further piqued his interest in growing stevia.

“Sweet Green Fields, and in particular Hal Teegarden, have been very helpful in helping us get the crop planted and have been here all along the growing season to help in any way they can — it’s been a real good working relationship, Winslow says.

“We are trying to introduce stevia to the Southeast in a way that will require very little additional investment for growers. If they are in the tobacco business, or have been and still have some equipment, they will find stevia can be planted with very little risk,” Teegarden says.

He explains that Sweet Green Fields provides all the transplants for growers, and could probably provide seed, if a grower was set up to produce their own transplants in a greenhouse.

Though they are the first to move production into the Southeast, Sweet Green Fields isn’t the only company trying to boost stevia production in the U.S. Chowcilla, Calif.,-based S&W seeds harvested a 114 acre site in California last year.

Teegarden says the demand for stevia in the food and beverage markets continues to grow. It can be found in a number of vitamin water products and Stevia in the raw is growing in popularity for use in food products.

Coca Cola is now test marketing stevia in two of its Sprite products in four cities in the U.S.

While some food and drink industry leaders have hailed stevia as the miracle sweetener, there have been a couple of troublesome areas that have forced some large drink manufacturers to take a second look.

Initial sales and projections are impressive, but the plant's extracts have a strong aftertaste, often compared to liquorice, and are far more expensive than artificial sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.

RebA is one end product from stevia plants that is marketed to various food and beverage companies for use as a natural sweetener.

Steviol glycosidesare responsible for the sweet taste of the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni).

Steviol glycoside compounds range in sweetness from 40 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose extracted from sugar beets or sugar cane. They are heat-stable, pH-stable, and do not ferment.

They also do not induce a glycemic response when ingested, making them attractive as natural sweeteners to diabetics and others on carbohydrate-controlled diets.

From a farmer’s perspective in the Southeast, the opportunity to grow stevia as a cash crop comparable in value to soybeans and corn is there, says Teegarden.

“In the near future — next couple of years — we would like to see a thousand acres or so produced commercially in the Southeast. After that, the opportunity to grow stevia will increase with market demand. I don’t know what the future acreage may be, but with the interest in stevia by both food and beverage companies, the demand could be huge,” he adds.

Currently, stevia is being grown commercially in southeast Georgia and in Bertie County in northeast North Carolina. Production has gone well in both commercial operations and there is a lot of interest in both areas, Teegarden notes.