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.

Rain-fed cop

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.

rroberson@farmpress.com