We’re willing to bet that the pigs of Parma, Italy, savor their meals more than most: They’ve been consuming whey left over from Parmigiano Reggiano production for centuries (at least, those fed in the traditional manner have). The pigs’ enhanced diet, in turn, delights humans: It’s credited for giving Prosciutto di Parma its famously rich flavor.
Historically, most pigs around the world were fed a variety of food waste, including whey. The advent of commercialized meat production pushed farms away from whey and toward mass-produced (and often soy-based) animal feed. Today, however, more small-scale and artisan farmers are returning to whey feeding. Proponents say the pigs are happier and healthier, and farmers reap multiple benefits.
Ignacio Villa, co-owner and manager of Vermont Whey Fed Pigs, learned about the sustainable practice in his native Colombia. “I’ve always wanted to find ways of integrating various enterprises into one farm operation,” Villa says. A few years ago, he became “hogmeister” at the von Trapp Farmstead in Waitsfield, Vt., where he introduced the idea of feeding whey from the farm’s cheese operations to its small pig herd (just four in 2010, but about 60 Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworth, and Berkshire today).
Villa hopes to standardize the production of whey-fed pigs across the state through Vermont Whey Fed Pigs, which has partnered with other farms, including Spring Brook Farm in Reading. Villa credits whey with the von Trapp pigs’ health: None have suffered internal parasites (a common problem). “The fact is, our pigs grow well on whey,” he says. The meat is sold mainly to local Vermonters.
Farmer Rachel Bell of Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds, Maine, also believes in the practice, and says it keeps her crossbred Gloucester Old Spots and Large Black pigs healthy. She appreciates how using the liquid by-product as pig feed contributes to the cyclical nature of the farm’s creamery.
“I really like thinking of my farm as a whole organism,” Bell says. Her pigs, marketed as Ironwood Whey-Good Pork, are sold on the farm and through area buying clubs and markets.
Besides whey’s practical benefits, there are also culinary perks, as Prosciutto di Parma lovers well know. Whey-fed pigs produce meat known for being deliciously dark, moist, and nutty—far less lean and dry than commercial pork.Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Jasper Hill Farm