You know what it takes to raise hogs. You proudly call yourself a pork producer. You may even see yourself as a member of the food system.

But do you have an exact understanding of what happens after your hogs walk off the truck at the packer? Sure, you dedicatedly read the kill sheets. You're savvy to the importance of pork quality and food safety. No question, you and many of your fellow producers have made great strides in your recognition of the players and activities within the pork chain. Yet, there remains a knowledge gap – and a rather cavernous one at that.

To be fair, in the daily practice of producing pork, you have plenty to do. There isn't time to learn the details of what the packer, processor or retailer do with your raw product.

Yet, you talk about moving further through the pork chain; about getting closer to the consumer, and that is a positive and progressive attitude. However, without knowledge and understanding of the other links in the chain, it is an unattainable goal.

So the question is – where can you gather such vast knowledge? This is where the beauty of your tight-knit industry (and your checkoff) comes into play.

The Pork 101 program offers you an opportunity to start with a group of live hogs and follow them to the plate. Each class is an intensive three-day program, involving 32 participants from every possible industry sector. Your class could include packer personnel, allied industry representatives, chefs, retailers, even a lender.

"You'll work hard, and the days are long," says one Pork 101 graduate. "But it's fascinating. It deepens your perspective." With each class there is a group of eight hogs, which means four people are assigned to a single hog. The activities begin with live animal evaluation, a short course on fat and lean deposition, as well as pricing and fat-free-lean index calculations.

The animals are slaughtered and the carcass evaluation begins, including fat and lean measurements, muscle quality evaluations and value calculations. The four-person group works as a team to break the carcass into primal cuts. "We actually put knives into the participant's hands and have them cut up the carcass," says David Meisinger, National Pork Board's vice president of pork quality.

It's the old "learning by doing" philosophy that, regardless of your past 4-H status, it's hard to argue with its educational effectiveness.

The next stage is processing the product from the primal cuts into the more recognizable retail versions. Here again, you'll look at quality, consistency and product value. You will see firsthand, the challenges that some carcasses and cuts present. In the end, you will have a pile of meat and a pile of lean, and a better understanding of the time and effort involved in getting there.

Then you will help further process products like bacon and sausage. Ultimately, you will conduct a taste test as you sample the wares of your labor, thus completing the cycle.

A substantial bonus of the program is the opportunity to interact with other segments of the pork chain – to learn about them and from them. That alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, there is a price of admission: it's $400 per person.

Each year, there are eight Pork 101 sessions held at university meat laboratories throughout the country. The dates and place for 2002 were not yet been set when I wrote this. But by the time you read this, you can receive the schedule by contacting Meisinger at (515) 223-2767 or e-mail david.meisinger@porkboard.org

There is also a condensed version of the program online at www.porkscience.org. Once there, you simply click on "Pork 101" . This will provide you a sample of what to expect at class.

Perhaps there's a benefit in sending an employee, or having your lender attend. There are so many reasons to put Pork 101 on your "to do list," not the least of which is to further bridge the gaps in the pork chain.