Denny Lee and Benny Lee, 66-year-old twin brothers, have spent their lives running several thousand acres at R.D. Lee Farms, Inc., mostly growing tobacco.
Now, along with a small handful of other farmers around the state, they are experimenting with a newer and sweeter crop: stevia.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of North Carolina tobacco farms shrank 35.9 percent between 2007 and 2012, although the amount of tobacco each farmer is producing is increasing. While some North Carolina farmers are seeing little decline and shipping overseas, other farmers are experimenting with alternative crops.
Tobacco needs a long rotation between seasons – usually about three years – so farmers often grow other crops in the fields during that time.
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Stevia could be one of them. The perennial plant is a shrub-like herb that can grow to about 3 feet tall, and its season lasts from about May through September.
The most prevalent extract from stevia is called rebaudioside A (Reb A), an all-natural sweetener that is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Domestically, the crop has generally been cultivated on the West Coast before its recent trial run in the Southeast. There are fewer than 500 acres of stevia in North Carolina today, although the number is rapidly increasing.
“It is not a lot, but it is exciting because it is an alternative,” said Molly Hamilton, extension assistant for crop science at North Carolina State University. She says they will have to experiment throughout the next few years, but if it proves successful farmers could increase their demand for it.
Expansion in the South
There is a force behind the experimentation. Sweet Green Fields is a 7-year-old Washington-based company that is turning to domestic farms for stevia production. It planted its first plot in North Carolina in 2011 and has expanded throughout the state and even through northern Georgia each year.
“Our goal is to have several thousand acres in the next few years. We feel that the market can support that,” said Hal Teegarden, vice president for agriculture operations at Sweet Green Fields.
In 2012, North Carolina State University received a $100,000 grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund to partner with Sweet Green Fields in researching winter hardiness, weed and disease management and to provide potential growers with answers about its profitability.
Demand for stevia has increased since the FDA approved it in 2008, as well as its qualities of being zero-calorie and all-natural.
More than 1,100 products that use stevia as a sweetener launched globally last year, Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands reported to Food Business News last year.
Coca-Cola reports using stevia in more than 25 products worldwide, mostly in Sprite. PepsiCo added stevia to Sobe Lifewater and its Tropicana orange juice Trop50 product. Vitamin Water also uses stevia in its products.
Originating in Paraguay, stevia is mostly farmed in China. Even with some U.S. farms growing stevia, extraction still occurs in China. Teegarden and others are hoping a U.S. extraction plant can be built to keep the entire process domestic.
Uses existing equipment
Farmers find stevia growth an easy transition because it uses a lot of the same machinery used for tobacco production. Peanut farmers could also use their equipment to grow stevia.
Initially, the plants start in a greenhouse to outlast the spring frost. During harvest, the foliage must be separated from the stem, dried and shipped to China to extract the glycoside.
North Carolina Grower’s Association Deputy Director Lee Wicker had only heard of stevia as a crop three weeks ago. He says that growing stevia could be a “hit or miss.”
Wicker does not believe it will be a strong candidate to replace tobacco, but views it as a possible complementary crop during rotation.
Stevia does not require many years of historical knowledge like tobacco, he said.
“No one crop will replace tobacco,” Wicker said.
A cash crop?
Denny Lee is growing his first stevia crop with Teegarden. He hopes that this crop will survive winter and last for up to four more years, as the plants grow larger and the expense decreases.
“I don’t know what to feel about it right now, but if it’s not profitable, we can’t grow it,” he said of the water-loving plant. “That’s the bottom line.”
Researchers are still studying disease and soil similarities.
So far, stevia producers and researchers are discovering that the climate is excellent for stevia. The soils used for tobacco are also conducive for the sweet plant. Fortunately, the sweet herb does not seem to draw deer, bears or even insects.
Researchers have discovered some potential diseases that also affect tobacco plants, but most are manageable.
Many questions still remain. In North Carolina, it is hard to determine the life of stevia plants because the oldest crop is only about 3 years old.
David Shew, professor of plant pathology at NCSU, says that the project is trying to stay ahead of the curve, addressing issues as the plants grow. He has witnessed a surprising amount of excitement and enthusiasm about the crop’s potential from growers.
“We are trying to get North Carolina into this early,” Shew said. “We think we have potential to garner a large part of the market.”