Jaleel Hewitt: Growing Caribbean Dreams

NC State agroecology student Jaleel Hewitt harvest sweetpotatoes in the field.

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is home to over 350 students pursuing two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees in agricultural and environmental sciences. Our mission is to connect them with the opportunities and careers that solve growing challenges.

Jaleel Hewitt is a senior majoring in agroecology with big plans for his family farm in the Caribbean. But first, he’s testing out business skills and plant science to take back to his home farm.

Hear how he’s mixing work, classes and volunteerism to find the right balance for business success and long-term sustainability.

Hi Jaleel, where are you from?

I was born in New York, but I spent my whole childhood and adolescent years in Jamaica. My father is from Jamaica, and my mother is from Trinidad.

What was your journey to NC State?

I picked NC State because I knew it was a good agricultural school. My aunt attended NC State for graduate school in business, so she encouraged me to consider it. 

I spent one and a half years at Wake Technical Community College and then transferred to NC State. I have enough credit hours to be considered a senior, but I added a minor in agricultural business and work part-time, so I plan to graduate in the spring of 2025.

How did you become interested in agroecology?

My dad has been farming in Jamaica for over 20 years. He grows specialty horticultural crops, such as high-value crops like peppers and tomatoes, for hotels and other markets. 

I wanted to study agroecology as a way to future-proof farming and make it sustainable in the face of climate change. Some people like to focus on a debate between agroecology and conventional farming like there’s a war between GMO products and organics. But there are actually a lot of misconceptions.

Agroecology is very flexible and versatile. You can implement different practices depending on the environmental and social setting you’re in. It’s not just hippie farming.

NC State agroecology student Jaleel Hewitt works on his family farm in Jamaica.
Jaleel was raised in Jamaica, where his family grows specialty produce.

Are you involved in any student groups?

I’m a member of the Agroecology Club and volunteer at the Agroecology Farm out at Lake Wheeler.  It’s a space where you can be yourself and surround yourself with like-minded individuals who have similar career plans.

What topics and classes have interested you the most so far?

Jaleel Hewitt holds a honeybee frame at an NC State campus eventI’ve taken a lot of great classes. But some of my favorites have been Helen Kraus’ Plant Nutrition, Dr. Russ’ farm management class, Dr. Edmisten’s Seeds, Biotechnology and Society class, Anne Spafford’s Introduction to Permaculture and Dr. Patterson’s Crop Science 214 lab. 

Every field trip we took in Dr. Patterson’s lab was wonderful. I love learning through experiences and seeing all that North Carolina agriculture has to offer. One of the last trips in the spring was to Pace Family Farms, where we got to pick strawberries, have ice cream and talk about their transition from tobacco to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm. It was a great way to end the semester.

You mentioned that you work part-time too.

Yes, year-round, I work with my aunt at her restaurant in Raleigh. I do a little bit of everything, but I mostly work as a cashier. I’ve learned a lot about interpersonal skills and how to work with different people. It’s important to interact positively with customers to reflect well on the business.

But I’ve also worked with Dr. Craig Yencho in his sweetpotato breeding program. My father grows sweetpotatoes, and I was interested to see how they handle the sweetpotato weevil in North Carolina.

In Jamaica, it’s a very destructive pest that bores holes in vines and lays the eggs of future larvae. It not only makes the harvestable product look ugly but also reduces yield and ruins the taste. It is a hard pest to control. 

NC State agroecology student Jaleel Hewitt processes sweetpotato vines for research.

Did the experience change your academic trajectory?

I learned that the sweet potato weevil isn’t as much of an issue in North Carolina as it is in Jamaica. North Carolina growers struggle more with root-knot nematodes.

It was interesting to see research in action. But I also learned that I am very practical and business-oriented. I want to work on the farm and with customers, not in research.

Did that experience count as your internship?

No, I’m hoping to do that at the Agroecology Farm. I think there is a lot more that could be done there with more funding.

I’d like to help make it the visual image of an ideal farm — fully planted, incorporating different systems like animals and composting. I think we could offer even more products or agrotourism experiences.

NC State's Jaleel Hewitt works in a high tunnel at the NC State agroecology education farm.
Jaleel volunteers at the NC State Agroecology Education Farm with the Agroecology Club and hopes to complete a summer internship there this year.

What is your career goal?

In the short term, I may look for local employment in the Raleigh-Durham area until my brother finishes school. He is a junior Goodnight Scholar in Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

But I definitely want to contribute to my dad’s business in Jamaica. As a developing country, I think we can be influential as a model farm. Most farms there are subsistence farmers. I want to show how we can produce food using science and technology.

Jamaica is a huge tourist area with a constant demand for fresh food. I’d like to see us scale the business and add agrotourism opportunities. I think there is a great opportunity to show people how we grow food and share educational stories of agriculture with schools and tour groups. 

There’s a trend away from farming because of the hard work and risk, but we can inspire children and the community to appreciate agriculture. And it would give the business great exposure. 

What has your experience been like at NC State?

NC State is an incredible place. I’ve learned a lot of things in and out of the classroom. But mainly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here, lots of people would be happy to trade places with me. I’m grateful the universe put me here.

I feel I have a responsibility to do well and make the most of this opportunity—especially to my parents, who have sacrificed for me to be here. They are my role models. I want to be just like my dad.

Jaleel Hewitt shows off a freshly caught fish.Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

I’m an avid fisherman. It’s therapeutic. I love to go somewhere peaceful and quiet, away from all the groups. Fishing teaches you about patience and the value of being able to be alone. My dad and I go fishing whenever I go back home. We share experiences and talk about life. Everyone should try it!

What’s your advice to a new student at NC State?

Be patient and give yourself time to find your path and friend group. At first, I saw other people having all of these experiences – work, research groups, study abroad, clubs –  and wondered why I wasn’t doing all of them too. 

They seemed to have everything figured out. I was driving myself crazy, wondering, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I moving fast enough? Am I doing the right things?’ The bottom line is not to let what other people do with their lives confuse you into thinking that you should do the same with yours. Always try to act with the right intentions, and the rest should follow.

I found that you have to take it one day at a time. We’re all coming from different places and need to be open to changes. Identify what you want from college and remember the reason why you’re here. There’s plenty of time to find your way. 

NC State's Jaleel Hewitt and friends attend a Wolfpack football game.

Picture yourself in crop and soil sciences. 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to a career of impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about our student degree pathways, including deep dives into our agronomy, soil science and turfgrass programs. Then, join us for a guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with fruitful careers is just part of how we are growing the future.