SPECIAL REPORT: Stevia and the Future of Farming

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YUBA CITY –

Stevia is an all-natural, zero calorie sweetener which now flavors some Coke and Pepsi products.

A Yuba City company is testing new technology to revolutionize the way the sweet leaf is grown.

As people search for zero calorie options, stevia is gaining popularity.

The South American plant is powerfully sweet.

"The sweet parts of this are 300 times sweeter than sugar,” said Jeremy Mann, vice president of operations at Stevia First.

Yuba City company, Stevia First, is growing the plant in the Sacramento region.

"Stevia offers an opportunity to get the sweet that we all want without suffering the caloric intake,” Mann said.

The three-year-old company grows stevia on farms in California and Arizona.

If stevia is a game changer for the sweetener industry, Stevia First is revolutionizing how it’s grown.

“This is the first time it’s been done in the field,” Mann said.

Drones are used to help with the growing process.  They shine a red LED light on the leaves, which speeds up production of their sweet component.

"We could double or triple the amount of sweet in our leaves in a very short amount of time,” Mann said.

Stevia First is still perfecting its techniques; growing stevia with the help of drones, then refining it in the lab.

Director of research and development Brandon Zipp explains the process.

"We’re taking this stevia extract and we'll put that into a liquid form and we will treat that with enzymes from the stevia plant,” Zipp said.

The final product is so strong it has to be diluted.

Stevia has been popular in other countries for decades. In the U.S., the FDA approved it in 2008.

“Only since then has the market for stevia opened up in North America, so that’s why it’s been popularized recently,” Mann said.

Stevia First’s product has not been distributed yet.

"The issue is, there's not nearly enough supply,” said Stevia First CEO Robert Brooke.

Brooke hopes to solve that problem by increasing the supply of the sweet leaf.

"It’s destined to become a very mainstream, natural, high-potency sweetener,” Brooke said.

The future of sweeteners and the future of farming are coming together in Yuba City.

Many farmers already use drones to capture video and, more recently, to spray crops.

Stevia First has been using drones for about a year.