Stevia is so new to North Carolina that researchers and farmers say there are far more questions than answers on producing the crop, but because of an established market and growing demand, they are committed to expanding acreage in the Tar Heel State.

Stevia uses similar production practices as tobacco, which makes it a good joint crop with tobacco in North Carolina. However, David Shew, professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University, said farmers must do their homework before deciding to grow stevia. It’s not for everybody.

“You need to start with the idea that you are willing to accept a challenge because there are unknowns at this point, but stevia does have a lot of potential in our climate,” Shew explained at a stevia field day held at Carter Farms in Eagle Springs, N.C., on June 24.

“Our goal when we started this program two years ago was to branch out throughout the Coastal Plains to get it exposed to growers in the state so people can make up their own minds,” Shew said. "They can see the crop, they can see what it takes to grow it, and they can get an idea of what their returns may be. They need to find out is this for them.”

Stevia (Stevia rebaundia) is an herbaceous perennial native to Paraguay. It is a rapidly emerging specialty crop in the United States as more companies seek improved sugar substitutes. Stevia leaves contain glycosides up to 300 times sweeter than sugar that can be extracted for use as a nonnutritive sweetener. The plant has been used in other countries for many years as an all-natural, no-calories sweetener.

The United States banned stevia usage in the early 1990s, unless labeled as a dietary supplement. But in 2008 USDA approved stevia for use as a food additive. Since then, stevia products have mushroomed at retail outlets across the United States with such brands as Truvia, Zevia, Sweet Leaf and Stevia in the Raw.

Hal Teegarden, vice president of agricultural operations of Sweet Green Fields, which is currently the only source of stevia seed and transplants in North Carolina, noted that demand for stevia is strong and growing. The United States is the largest single market for high purity stevia extracts at approximately 300 metric tons of finished products annually. This represents roughly 65 percent of the global market for high purity stevia extracts in 2011.

“Yes there are challenges to growing stevia, but we are really excited about where we find ourselves today,” Teegarden said. “It’s a growing crop, it’s a growing industry, and it’s a growing market. It certainly represents an opportunity for U.S. growers as the industry grows and demand grows.”