Cal Poly State University, located in San Luis Obispo County, is a very prominent agriculture school. There’s tractor driving, cattle raising, fruit growing, and my personal favorite—food production. The school takes the motto “Learn by Doing” seriously, and students here get to command the process themselves, producing high quality products from procurement all the way to finished products. Cal Poly has a wide range of food products you can buy either online or right here on campus, including: chocolate bars, BBQ sauce, coffee, milk, cheese, meat, ice cream, and Cal Poly jam.

Being obsessed with food and how it’s made, obviously, I was excited to to see how this process happens myself. I spoke to the Food Science & Nutrition Operations Manager here, Molly Lear, who welcomed me into her lab to watch the students make their latest product: olallieberry spreadable fruit (jam). 

The Flavor 

For those of you who may not have heard of this strange berry before, olallieberries are a breed of mostly blackberry, though they contain elements of blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries. Though created in the early 1900s in Oregon, the berry is now mostly produced in California (some are even grown right here in SLO County) and is one of the most popular flavors for Cal Poly jams. I can guarantee from personal experience, it’s definitely worth the $8 price per jar.

The Process

I visited the FSN Pilot Plant on campus and suited up with a hairnet, gloves, goggles, and a production shirt, waiting for the class of students to come in and start the production of Cal Poly jam. Upon arrival, Lear divided the class up into groups, creating teams to work on heating & mixing, filling, capping, and packaging .

The process started at the right side of the room, with berries being added to a steam jacketed kettle, heating and mixing them until they are at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, the sugar was added as the mixture continued to heat up. This was done until the Quality Assurance specifics were met. As the mixture heated, a group of students set out the empty jars for the jam onto a conveyor line that fed them into the filler.  

Natasha Agharkar

Once the mixture was ready, a sample was pulled out for testing. 

Natasha Agharkar
Natasha Agharkar

As the spreadable fruit neared being ready to fill and package, the smell of sweet olallieberry filled the air, and immediately my stomach growled. I began daydreaming of PB&Js and little Cal Poly jam cookies, but quickly snapped out of my trance as the real action began.

Lear and her assistant managers handed out noise-reducing headphones, warning me that it was about to get incredibly loud once the machines were turned on. In a couple minutes, the production line started. The fruit was pumped from the kettle up through a tube and into the filler, where just the right amount was dispensed out into the prepared jars on the conveyor line. 

Natasha Agharkar

These jars were whisked away to the capper next, where lids were added and screwed on, ensuring its hermetic seal. Students checked each jar to make sure the jar lid was on tight and then conveyed them through a wash and dry line prior to being labelled and packaged into finished cases. Every jar of Cal Poly jam is hand-checked before being boxed to make sure each one is of the proper quality.

At the end of the production, all of the equipment was sprayed down and cleaned with water, detergent, and sanitizer, t Pilot Plant ready for a new batch to be made.

Natasha Agharkar

Make Cal Poly Jam for Yourself 

When I talked to Molly Lear about my now intense interest in food production, she gave me some great news for Cal Poly students. FSN 230 (Elements of Food Processing) is a course offered here to non-FSN majors, which lets you participate in this same process, regardless of your major. It’s typically offered all 3 quarters of the school year, and what you get to produce depends on the season. For example, jam production happens during fall/winter quarter, and BBQ sauce during spring. No matter the quarter, this is a class I most definitely plan on taking as an elective.

Imagine handing packaged Cal Poly jam or other products over to friends and family as a gift, and then being able to tell them it was you who made it—that’s a gift made with effort. Whether it’s curiosity, love for cooking/producing, or just the need for a good story, this unique jam-making class is offered at few schools and I recommend it be taken advantage of!

Natasha Agharkar