Stevia Production in NC
In September, the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund funded a project to research production of organic and conventional stevia in the state. Stevia is a plant of the Asteraceae (sunflower) family whose leaves have been used as a sweetener in South America for hundreds of years. Stevia extracts are used as an all-natural, zero calorie high intensity sweetener.
Sweet Green Fields (SGF) is the largest supplier of US grown Stevia today, and has recently started sourcing production in the southeast. Growing conditions in NC are ideal, potentially making NC growers very competitive in the global market place, says Hal Teegarden, Vice President of Agricultural Operations of SGF. As the global demand for Stevia grows, concerns arise with regard to country of origin (80% currently produced in China), capacity of supply, traceability, and quality/purity of the end product. Teegarden says, “Today, there is significant interest in US Grown Stevia and the agriculture community in North Carolina is uniquely positioned to meet a significant portion of projected increase in crop demand over the next several years.” He points out that soil and climate conditions in NC, as well as existing infrastructure, give NC an advantage in production ability.
Former and current tobacco growers, organic and conventional, may be able to take greatest advantage of this new crop to add to the farm rotation. Practices used in the production of stevia are very similar to those used in tobacco production, from transplant production to harvest and stem and leaf separation, affording growers the opportunity to utilize idle tobacco infrastructure for stevia production.
Through the TTF funded project, NCSU will conduct field trials over the next few years to determine optimum fertilization, pest management, and harvesting practices for NC. Disease scouting and identification, in greenhouses as well as in the field, will help determine disease resistance in stevia varieties that will be grown in NC. Field workshops will take place this year, in July and September, so that interested growers can learn more about this plant and its production.