But, he adds, stevia is a hardy plant that is expected to thrive in Central Valley conditions that include adequate chilling hours, temperatures that usually do not bring a hard freeze and long summer days.

To keep weeds out, drip tape is buried beneath the plants. The plant’s roots only extend about 6 or 7 inches into the soil.

The plant can grow to between 2 and 2.5 feet tall. Sihota said he working with five varieties – including material that came from China and India – to find out what will work best in the Valley. Plant breeding continues.

As with alfalfa, thick plant density is not desirable, resulting in fewer leaves and more stem material. The plants could range from 20,000 to 50,000 per acre. It’s not unusual to get a harvest of 2 tons per acre of dried leaves.

Clinton Shock, an Oregon State University professor in crop sciences and a consultant for S&W, wrote an article on stevia that was featured in California Agriculture magazine for September-October 1982.

Then a graduate student at the University of California at Davis, Shock worked with a stevia plantation in Paraguay and grew plants in Davis, Southern California, and later, Louisiana.

But much of Shock’s work came before consumers turned to artificial sweeteners like stevia. It was an idea before its time.

“Look at where we were 30 years ago,” Grewal said. “We were not as obese; there was not the problem with diabetes. Look at how we eat now, with sodas replacing milk.”

Another key to the intensified interest in the plant is the federal government’s approval of stevia for human consumption less than two years ago.

Until then, said Rod Cook, PureCircle’s director for agricultural development, the plant was recognized as an herbal supplement. It was grown mostly by backyard gardeners and suppliers to farmers markets.

Cook, who is based in Olympia, Wash., said the industry received a significant boost 30 years ago when Japan banned some artificial sweeteners and a Japanese company called Morita Limited turned to use of stevia out of China.

“It became a consumption hot spot,” Cook said.

Another breakthrough, he said, was PureCircle’s ability to refine the product using new technologies to extract the key components of the finished product, “filtering molecule by molecule.”

“I think the future for growing stevia in California looks quite bright if a few challenges can be met,” Cook said. “Currently, it’s gown in Third World nations and requires a lot of labor. If we can adapt our mechanical knowhow to do it economically, that will be important.

“Another challenge will be the source of plant material. But once that is established and once it is known that it is adapted to a particular location, it should do well. Early on, it does need water.”

As for growing the plants in Fresno County, Cook said that’s a decided plus: “The entire world wants to know about where their food comes from. It shortens the carbon footprint, and those with large beverage firms and bakeries will be happier when they can get on a plane, fly to Fresno, walk into a field and say, ‘This is where our stevia is coming from.’”