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Pump up the ham: Cal Poly's meat plant and pig program have been spreading holiday cheer for 20 years running

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Pigs are famous for truffle hunting, Orwellian analogies, and stints on Looney Tunes. But a slew of Cal Poly students are reminding San Luis Obispo County of their most delicious offering—holiday hams.

For the past 20 years, the university meat-processing plant called Cal Poly Meats has been selling high-quality pork in partnership with the Cal Poly Swine Unit. AnnMarie Cornejo, the communications specialist from the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, said that the plant teaches students the science of meat production while serving SLO County locally sourced meat products.

"The program is just one of many hands-on experiences students are able to have during their time at Cal Poly—both inside and outside the classroom—emphasizing a farm-to-fork mentality," she said.

But the Meats and Swine Unit partnership also aims to spread holiday cheer. The Swine Unit is a student-run pig program that raises roughly 40 crossbred show pig sows and 60 commercial sows. Some of the commercial animals are sold to Meats to make hams. The Swine Unit puts the money back into the program so students can improve their exposure to the process from breeding and farrowing (helping pigs give birth) to finishing.

HOLIDAY TEAMWORK Cal Poly Meats purchases commercial pigs from the Cal Poly Swine Unit to produce holiday hams. Proceeds from pig and ham sales go back into both departments to boost hands-on learning. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAL POLY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Cal Poly College Of Agriculture, Food And Environmental Sciences
  • HOLIDAY TEAMWORK Cal Poly Meats purchases commercial pigs from the Cal Poly Swine Unit to produce holiday hams. Proceeds from pig and ham sales go back into both departments to boost hands-on learning.

Available only during the holiday season, Cornejo said that the hams are cured for about 14 days and flavored with all-natural hickory smoke. They're available bone-in for $4.50 a pound, and can be purchased as a whole (between 18 to 20 pounds) or half (between 9 to 12 pounds). Beginning early November, community members have been reserving the hams for upcoming holidays, starting with Thanksgiving. She added that Dec. 18 is the last day for pickup.

"Students are involved in every step of the process, from processing and curing hams to packaging and organizing marketing and sales. The center anticipates that more than 200 whole hams will be sold this year," Cornejo said.

Currently, the USDA-inspected Meats employ 20 Cal Poly students, and they hail from a variety of majors including animal science, bioresource and agricultural engineering, and horticulture and crop science. One such student is fourth-year Shelby Watts. She also works as Meats' student manager.

"The Cal Poly Meat Processing Center is the epitome of 'learn by doing' through utilizing industry standards and practices through hands-on experiences," said Watts, an agricultural science major. "It allows students such as myself with little experience upon introduction to develop industry knowledge, professional skills, and serve the community in a unique way."

Like the Swine Unit's income, proceeds from meat sales go back into the meat-processing center so students can glean from the harvesting to packaging process. Customers can pick up hams and more—fresh beef, lamb, poultry—from the small storefront located at the back end of campus overlooking pastures on Stenner Creek Road.

PIG OUT Fourth-year animal science major Avery De Mello (pictured) is one of the 20 students employed by Cal Poly Meats who handle ham production and sales. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAL POLY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Cal Poly College Of Agriculture, Food And Environmental Sciences
  • PIG OUT Fourth-year animal science major Avery De Mello (pictured) is one of the 20 students employed by Cal Poly Meats who handle ham production and sales.

For Cal Poly student Nora Bales, the quality of the meat products ensured her lasting loyalty. Bales told New Times that though this year will be her first time ordering a ham from Cal Poly Meats for Christmas, she has been a customer since 2013 when she was an undergraduate student. She added that Meats' customer service smoothened her complicated holiday travel schedule.

"I got an email confirmation saying that I was confirmed to get a ham and they gave me a time window. But I'm going to be out of town [during that window]. So I emailed again and asked if I could pick it up at a different time. They said, 'Absolutely!' It was seamless and easy," Bales, now a graduate student, said.

Getting her ingredients from close to home is important for Bales.

"As a Cal Poly student, it doesn't get more local than the school that I go to. I know people that work at Cal Poly Meats, I see where they keep their animals. I know that they're making these products with high ethical standards," she said.

Leaders from the meat plant also credit the locally sourced nature for a strong base of returning customers. Cornejo added that some of them included "alumni-operated companies in nearby counties" that purchase hams annually for their employees.

Jim Douglass, a 1979 Cal Poly graduate who oversees the meat-processing center, said that regulars are especially active during the holiday season.

"We have a lot of repeat customers during the holidays who have made Cal Poly hams a part of their holiday tradition," he said. "Students get to see first-hand how their hard work is valued." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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