After tobacco: What? Every year fewer and fewer farmers plant tobacco, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But what are they to grow instead? Prospects look good, say experts, for a valuable but virtually unknown crop: stevia. From it is derived a zero-calorie, all-natural sweetener used by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and a fast-growing list of other food and beverage manufacturers.
Robert Brooke, CEO of Stevia First, a California agribusiness looking to promote the plant's cultivation, tells ABC News that stevia has been grown in South America for hundreds of years. It's grown in China, and, since the 1970s, in Japan. But, says Brooke, barely 10 percent of U.S. consumers had ever heard of it by 2008, the year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a sugar-substitute.
The most widely form of stevia now available in the U.S. is marketed by Cargill under the name Truvia. Mark Brooks, Truvia's global business director, tells Bloomberg that about 55 million American households bought stevia-sweetened products in the past year, according to Nielsen data.
Proponents call stevia the "holy grail" of sweeteners, perfect for people looking to slim down but not wanting to resort to artificial sweeteners. Its effect on blood sugar is negligible, they say, making it well suited to people on a carbohydrate-restricted diet.
Stevia sweetens Crystal Light drink mixes, Tropicana orange juice and some Smuckers' jams.
Stevia First says that according to a World Health Organization projection, stevia could eventually replace 20 percent to 30 percent of all dietary sweeteners now in use. The size of that market in 2010 was estimated by the WHO to be more than $58 billion.
So, where do tobacco farmers come in?
As crops, stevia and tobacco share similarities.
Both thrive in the same climates and soils. Stevia can be planted, grown and processed using many of the same techniques and much of the same equipment as tobacco. It's not a one-to-one match by any means, Stevia First's agronomist, Jeremiah Manns, tells ABC. But it's close enough for tobacco farmers to regard stevia as a promising alternative.
Bloomberg cites the example of Julian Rigby, a former Alma, Ga., tobacco farmer who three years ago switched to growing stevia. He tells Bloomberg the switch was easy. After making some modifications, he says he's been able to grow stevia using the same planters, harvesters, drying barns and loaders.
Sweet Green Fields, based in Bellingham, Washington, grows stevia in California, Georgia and the Carolinas. The company's vice president of science, Mel Jackson, tells ABC News that the percentage grown on former tobacco land is low, but interest among southeastern farmers is high. The move from one crop to the other he calls doable. "It can be done. We are doing it. Whether it's easy or not is another matter."
More farmers soon will have an added incentive to try, though, says Mike Quin, Sweet Green's senior vice president for sales: "Part of the issue is, some of the federal payouts and subsidies paid to tobacco farmers come to an end in 2014." Looking to the day subsidies end, tobacco growers, he says, are looking for a viable alternative. And stevia fills the bill.