A Fresno County, Calif., alfalfa seed breeding company and dealer is investing millions of dollars in what it believes is a global cash crop that will sweeten its bottom line big time – stevia.

S&W Seed Co., based in Five Points, has entered into a five-year agreement with PureCircle Limited, said to be the leading producer and marketer of stevia, a sweetener that has drawn significant interest because it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, has no calories and has no negligible carbohydrates.

Although the growing of the plant remains in the research stage in neighboring Madera County, Mark Grewal, CEO and president of S&W, is bullish on the new crop.

Asked if it could be “the next hot crop” to rival almonds - which replaced thousands of acres of grapes, tree fruit and row crops statewide – Grewal said, “I think it’s bigger than almonds; it will replace sugar cane and sugar beets.”

But many questions remain to be answered, acknowledges Grewal, a self-acknowledged risk taker who welcomes change and who was formerly vice president of ranching and a member of the board of directors of the J.G. Boswell Co. farming operation in Corcoran.

“This is one that will happen,” he says.

But he doesn’t know:

  • What the acreage will be. (His company is preparing a 100-acre site to be planted this fall for harvest next spring.) “It could be 1,000 acres by next year,” Grewal says.
  • What the yields will be.
  • What farmers who contract with S&W can make out of growing the popular sweetener. “We don’t have a profit model for the farmer,” Grewal says.

Among the other variables still to be sorted out are just how many cuttings a grower can make from the crop. It may be possible to get up to four or five cuttings, and the crop – like alfalfa – can last for five years.

It is believed to be the first large scale planting of stevia in the U.S. Currently, PureCircle, which has its global headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sources its stevia from countries that include China, Thailand, Paraguay, Kenya and Indonesia. But its biggest market for stevia-derived sweeteners is the U.S.

In a press release, Dorn Wenninger, PureCircle vice president of supply chain, said, “We’re committed to sourcing stevia in areas as close to our customers as possible. Our agronomists are sharing best practices from our operations in Asia, Africa and South America with S&W Seed Co. as we work to provide large scale volumes of stevia leaf for American consumers.”