Stevia could become sweet new crop
You might think that California's production of 350 commercial crops is accomplishment enough, but the promise of stevia is encouraging plantings of this sweet new crop.
The tough growing conditions of the San Joaquin Valley's west side seem particularly well-suited to the production of stevia. It drops right into the fast-flowing stream of health concerns about sweeteners traditionally used in the American diet.
Specialty stores such as Trader Joe's have offered the white powdery product of the stevia plant for years — said by some to be 300 times sweeter than sugar, a real super sweetener. Cooks and chefs find that a tiny pinch offers more sweet flavoring than a teaspoon of sugar.
A huge industry has developed around a vast array of artificial sweeteners in the wake of medical concerns about the negative health effects of sugar's overuse. The sugar taste-alikes are easily identified in restaurants in their pink, blue or yellow packets.
But stevia is not artificial. It's the real thing, without the caloric kick of sugar.
It is well-known and widely grown in both India and China, which is the primary supplier to the United States. As many as 200,000 small-scale growers produce the crop in China.
S&W Seeds, a well-known supplier of alfalfa seeds in particular in Central California's Westside breadbasket, is making plans to enter the stevia market in a major way. It hopes to encourage others to grow it as well, and serve as a direct line to the processing required to convert the leaves of the perennial plant to the snow white powder that can be packaged a dozen different ways.
Several varieties of the stevia plant are in use, some of them growing in S&W Seeds' experimental plot in Madera County. The seed company is conducting its own plant breeding program to develop the crosses or varieties that will thrive in San Joaquin Valley conditions. One characteristic common to most of the varieties is a high tolerance to cold weather.
When the knee-high stevia plant is harvested by cutting or mowing, it regrows. In India, this can result in five cuttings per season. S&W's lead agronomist, Koren Sihota, said the expectation is three or four cuttings under Central Valley conditions.
The base of operations for S&W is its 40-acre facility at Five Points in western Fresno County. Sihota, a Fresno State University agronomy graduate, oversees production planning there in a clim ate in which he has more than 10 years of commercial farming experience.
Also on the S&W team is Clinton Shock, professor at Oregon State University, where he is the supervising faculty member of the university's Crop Research Center. His experience with stevia goes back 40 years when he was at the University of California, Davis. At that time, he led an experimental project to grow stevia in the United States from seeds and live plants collected in northeastern Paraguay
S&W's relationship with PureCircle, the world's largest producer of stevia sweeteners, allows it to plan delivery of the raw plant materials to PureCircle's processing facility in Asia.
Seeds and plant materials from Paraguay, production research in India, China and elsewhere, a processing facility in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a growing customer base in the United States and dozens of other countries give the tiny Fresno County town of Five Points quite an international flavor.
The term sweetness has been applied to championship race horses, professional football players, other athletes and probably several dancers and smooth movers. If "sweetness capital" becomes an apt description for Five Points, nobody is likely to be more surprised than its residents. They will be encouraged to stir lightly and enjoy.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org