SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Stevia First Corp. is planning a field-scale study using agricultural drones. The practice potentially may help U.S. growers make stevia a more economically-viable crop, according to Stevia First, which wants to establish a vertically integrated stevia enterprise in the United States.

The agricultural drones are used to interrupt a “photoperiod.” Brief overnight illumination involves red LED light on the stevia plants and may stimulate growth and plant flowering, which then increase leaf mass and steviol glycoside content. It is hoped a doubling of steviol glycosides within several weeks would extrapolate to more than a five-fold gain in steviol glycosides over a full year of production, according to Stevia First.

If laboratory results may be replicated and implemented at field-scale in California’s Central Valley, U.S. stevia growers may find greater production efficiencies compared to those found in the traditional methods used in China, which has primary growing regions for stevia, a source of zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners.

“American farmers have always been quick to adapt to technological change and reap the benefits,” said Robert Brooke, chief executive officer of Stevia First, Yuba City, Calif. ”Combining drones with photoperiod interruption for stevia is a radical approach that we’re thrilled to participate in the development of with local growers.”