Grover Wickersham, chairman of S&W, said the market for stevia is projected to be more than $2 billion by 2012.

PureCircle is traded on the London Stock Exchange. In May, S&W went public, selling stock traded on the NASDAQ exchange, to raise $15.4 million from Wall Street to launch stevia production and to explore other crop possibilities. Grewal does not say exactly how much is going into stevia research and development, stating that it is “in the millions.”

One of the keys to that research is finding ways to mechanize the harvest in order to make it economically feasible in the U.S., where labor costs far exceed those in most of the supplier nations.

“This is like cotton in the Civil War days, it’s in its infancy,” Grewal said. But just as cotton picking and processing was mechanized, he believes, the same can happen with stevia.

Koren Sihota, stevia program director for S&W, said a modified spinach harvester will likely be used to harvest the company’s first crop. The plants will be mechanically dried and equipment will be used to for de-stemming.

Sihota said S&W is working with a Fresno nursery that will grow transplants from seed and in time S&W “is prepared to build a nursery as well if necessary.”

Dried material would be shipped to PureCircle for processing out of ports that could include Stockton, Oakland and Long Beach. In time, Sihota said, S&W may develop its own processing facility in the San Joaquin Valley.

Sihota showed how the plants are grown on 12 acres near Chowchilla where S&W has test plots and plans to step up acreage at the huge Triangle T Ranch. The ranch covers 21 square miles, 13,000 acres devoted to alfalfa, cotton, feed lot operations and other uses.

The initial plantings look very little like a field of dreams. There were setbacks early on in the research when deliveries of seeds and plants were delayed because of questions raised by customs, issues that have since been resolved.

“There was some die-out,” Sihota said, “because some seedlings were delayed in planting until July; we wanted to transplant in spring.”