Special to the Enterprise
The once-idled leaf-processing machines at a former tobacco trading house in Alma, are coming back to life. Except now the warehouse, which still smells like tobacco leaves and cigarette smoke, is becoming a hub for a sweeter crop: stevia.
Approved for commercial use in the U.S. five years ago, stevia extracts are fast becoming the sugar substitute of choice for a population trying to slim down and avoid artificial options. The no-calorie, natural sweetener, grown mostly in China and South America, is creating an opportunity for U.S. farmers and processors looking to make up for dwindling tobacco demand and win business from Cargill Inc. and Coca-Cola Co.
KOStevia may one day command about a third of the $58 billion global dietary sweetener market, according to Stevia First Corp. STVF in Yuba City, California, citing World Health Organization data.
By contrast, U.S. tobacco output has slid by half in the past 20 years. Since the two leafs are handled similarly, processors are urging farmers to switch to stevia production.
“I can remember 25 years ago when there were 300 tobacco farmers here,” Julian Rigby, a 62-year-old farmer who is trading tobacco fields for stevia, said in an interview at the Alma facility. “Today there’s one.”
Stevia and tobacco have a lot in common. They grow in a similar climate and soils. Both leaves are picked, separated from their stems and dried for use. Stevia was named after the 16th-century botanist Petrus Jacobus Stevus, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.