Stevia production at commercial and research sites in both Georgia and North Carolina was so successful that Sweet Green Fields Inc., a primary supplier of stevia to the food and drink industry worldwide, has announced plans to expand commercial production in the Southeast.

In 2012, Sweet Green Fields worked with grower partners in Georgia and North Carolina to produce the first commercial stevia crops in the Southeast U.S.

They also planted test plots of the crop with the support of the Georgia and the North Carolina Departments of Agriculture, along with the Colleges of Agriculture from land grant universities in both states.

(For an earlier story on Southeast stevia production, click here).

"We are extremely pleased with the performance of our 2012 crop and we are very excited about the aggressive growth plan we have in place for 2013," says Hal Teegarden, vice-president of agricultural operations for Sweet Green Fields.

“In the near future — next couple of years — we would like to see 1,000 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,” Teegarden says.

“The response of our varieties to the environment, the regional expertise and technology to produce crops in a sustainable model and the support we have received from our agribusiness partners in the Southeast, all back our plan to significantly bolster our supply of American-grown stevia, he adds."

Tobacco and sweet potato growers, in particular, may be interested in growing stevia for Sweet Green Fields, because of the commonality of transplanting equipment and management practices that are common among the three crops.

Teegarden says his company is particularly interested in helping develop rural economies that have been damaged over the past few years by loss of tobacco acreage and other profit-generating farm crops.

“As an agricultural leader, Sweet Green Fields is committed to developing and implementing sustainable and socially responsible practices, and working with its grower partners and stakeholder community, to leverage technologies and uphold its commitments to the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in order to ensure responsible and sustainable stevia production,” he says.

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.

Last season, the first time stevia was grown in North Carolina, Winslow says weeds were the biggest problem in growing the crop. Obviously, there are 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, Winslow says.

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.

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 stevia.

rroberson@farmpress.com