Being a Permaculture Diploma student at Djanbung Gardens has a number of benefits. To start with, we attend all short courses on offer at Djanbung, an incredibly rich and diverse curriculum. A few weeks ago we completed a cheese making workshop with our local expert cheese maker, Jenny Creasy. Jenny’s calm instructions guided us through the making of a lovely haloumi and the processing of the whey into ricotta. During the workshop, one of the students asked an important question – what does a cheese maker do with all the whey produced as a by-product of the cheese making process? After all, making half a kilogram of cheese will produce around 3 litres of whey. Yikes! A couple of ideas were discussed for how to make use of the whey. Considering that ‘Produce No Waste’ is an important Permaculture principle, I wondered what other uses for whey I could find.

First of all, what is whey? It turns out that whey is milk without the solids and fats – mostly water with a bit of lactose (milk sugar) and two types of milk proteins, casein and whey protein. In addition, whey contains vitamins, minerals, and enzymes particularly if it comes from raw milk. The exact constituents change with the type of milk (cow, goat, ewe, etc.), time of year (lush green spring grasses produce a different milk than drier autumn grasses) and pasture type.

Another consideration in the use of whey is whether it is ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’. Sour, or acid, whey is produced when making a cheese that requires the use of an acidifier such as vinegar, citric acid or lemon juice. Some of the acidifier will remain in the whey, imparting a sour taste. Sweet whey is produced when making other types of cheese, especially hard cheese made with rennet. It’s not really sweet in taste – it’s just not sour in taste like sour whey. Some people prefer to use one or the other type of whey for a particular purpose, but that decision is highly individual. Just note that I haven’t tried all of these uses for whey – experiment at your own risk!

With all the nutritious goodies packed into whey, it sure sounds like something you could drink or eat, doesn’t it? And indeed, it can be used to make all sorts of food and beverages for humans and other animals. Sweet whey (and some people even use the sour variety) can be used to make ricotta or other whey cheeses, like gjetost. Making cheese from whey is like getting double the bang for your buck, so to speak. Both types of whey can be added to soup stock or stews, and sweet whey can be used as a water or milk substitute in baking. It can be used in meat marinades as a meat tenderiser. Sally Fallon, author of “Nourishing Traditions”, recommends the use of whey for soaking beans, grains and lentils to make them more digestible. Likewise, it can be used to cook potatoes, rice or pasta. I personally use whey to boost the nutrient value of smoothies and shakes, but it can also be used straight up as a chilled drink or as a base for lemonade. Carrying on the food theme, whey is often used to start or accelerate fermentation. It has strains of lactobacillus and other lactic acid-producing bacteria in it, making it an ideal starter for lacto-ferments, such as sauerkraut, kvass, fruit ferments and lacto-fermented drinks.

Of course, if you can use whey for human food, you can also use it for animal food (http://future.aae.wisc.edu/publications/farmstead_whey_use.pdf). When I had chooks in New Zealand, I used to mix hot whey into their mash during the winter. Djanbung Gardens’ own Polly the Pig loved slurping up the whey from the cheese making course. And speaking of pigs…Nimbin Valley Dairy, faced with a glut of the golden liquid, purchased pigs to consume the excess. The pigs are then turned into salami, and thus a ‘waste’ material becomes a high value farm product. Just a warning about both human and animal consumption – if a person or an animal shouldn’t have milk for any reason, then don’t feed them whey either. For example, someone with leaky gut may react to the proteins in whey as they are the same proteins that milk contains.

Now on to some non-food uses – and there are many. In the garden, whey has a number of uses, mainly due to its acidity. It can be used in place of milk in the treatment of powdery mildew and many other fungal diseases (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304423808000861). It can help lower your soil pH, a great alternative to sulphur-based products (http://eprints.nwisrl.ars.usda.gov/807/1/957.pdf); of course, keep that in mind when using whey to fight fungal diseases on an acid soil. It can also improve the aggregate structure of a sodic soil which is great news for Australia’s salinity issues (http://eprints.nwisrl.ars.usda.gov/616/1/835.pdf). Whey as a food for soil organisms provides phosphorus and potassium, and its carbon to nitrogen ratio is 20:1, just under the ideal ratio of 25-30:1 (http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/59467/5.3.Landmark.pdf?sequence=1). The many lactic acid-producing bacteria in whey, useful as they are for edible ferments, also boosts and activates compost, compost teas and compost toilets. In a similar vein, a Bokashi ferment can be started using whey (http://bocashi.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/bokashicomposting1.pdf).

Whey also makes a good beauty product, softening the skin when rubbed in and softening the hair when used as a conditioner (http://www.everything-goat-milk.com/uses-for-whey.html). It can be used instead of milk in soap recipes (here’s an interesting one, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwh6em5ffjo). Given its anti-fungal nature, you might try whey as a remedy for the dreaded toenail fungus or athlete’s foot (http://www.health911.com/athletes_foot). Whey is full of probiotics and electrolytes and can be used to ease diarrhoea (http://www.dairyscience.info/index.php/probiotics/110-whey-probiotics.html) – just note that the opposite effect may result if you use whey powder.

And finally…finally…whey can be used as a mordant for natural dyes (https://threadofsong.wordpress.com/tag/whey/).

Whey can be kept in the refrigerator (tightly covered) for up to 6 months (see Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions”) or even frozen.

Of course, this article isn’t REALLY about whey – it’s about a state of mind that allows us to make use of a valuable resource that some may consider waste. Indeed, until demand skyrocketed for whey protein powder, commercial cheese makers DID consider whey a waste product. Nothing actually changed between ‘waste’ and ‘resource’ except the way they looked at the problem. This is a lesson for us all. We are limited only by our imagination – and in some cases our research nous – in finding solutions to ‘problems’ of waste, and turning those problems into additional yields from our system.