How Rob Greenfield Grew or Foraged 100% of His Food for a Year

Are you interested in growing your own food? Do you want to better understand where your food comes from? Are you concerned about the negative consequences of factory farming? Are you an experienced gardener interested in new crop possibilities? Or are you interested in sustainability and how you might be able to live in a more sustainable, self-reliant way?

If you said "Yes" to any of the above, you need to meet Rob Greenfield.

Rob is the real deal. He is one of the most influential environmental activists in the world. He has been featured on thousands of media outlets including National Geographic, BBC, CBS This Morning, Discovery Channel, USA Today, LA Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post and more. He has dedicated his life to "leading the way to a more sustainable and just world."

In 2017 he moved to Orlando to embark on his "food independence" project to grow and forage 100% of his food for a year.

Below is a summary from our notes on Rob's presentation given at an Orlando Permaculture Meetup on Nov. 12, 2019. Rob had just completed his food independence project.

We found Rob's presentation both fascinating and inspiring. His mission of separating himself from the industrial food system is right line with our mission at Pasture Brothers to create such independence from the same system for ourselves and our community.

In the summary below, you will learn how Rob turned his yard into a garden and how you can too, what types of food Rob ate, what crops he'd recommend others grow and why, how he prepared for the project, how he overcame hard times, and what resources he leaned on the most and would recommend to others.

Links are also provided to his suggested outside resources.

The full presentation was recorded and will be made available on the Rob Greenfield Facebook page. There's certainly more info packed into the talk than we were able to takes notes on but we were able to capture quite a bit. Without further ado... 

Getting started:

Rob had very little experience growing food prior to starting the project. He had done some raised beds and potted plants with mild success. He started visiting education centers like Sustainable Kashi, and HEART, local farms and nurseries, attending meetups like Orlando Permaculture and talking to local growers, doing plant walks with local experts, doing workshops, and reading books and researching online.

Why did Rob choose Orlando as his home for the project? He had spent time in Orlando and felt very welcomed by the community, especially in the Audubon park neighborhood. He thought he could make a bigger impact in Orlando than somewhere like Berkeley, CA because Orlando is known to be less progressive but is evolving more in that direction.

From a practical standpoint, Rob also recognized the year-round growing season Orlando offered and the diversity of foods that could be grown thanks to the subtropical climate. 

Where did Rob live and setup his gardens? He lived in a tiny house constructed in a friend's suburban backyard. In exchange for allowing him to live there, Rob provided the service of turning the friend's yard into a "food jungle," with a huge variety of edible crops. A handful of other neighbors also allowed him to garden on their properties. 

Rob spent about 10 months prepping for the project. He originally planned on taking about 6 months but decided he needed a bit more time.

Grew over 300 foods over the course of the year

  • 100 grown in garden
  • 200 foraged

How to turn your yard into a garden:

All you need are these six ingredients:
1. Carboard - Lay it on top of grass to suppress further growth. Easy to find for free in trash outside local appliance stores, department stores, liquor stores, etc... Remove tape. Try not to use super colorful cardboard.
2. Mulch - Layered on top of cardboard, recommends 6-8 inches. Can get for free from landscape companies who grind it up and then want to dump it as a waste product, or can sometimes get for free from getchipdrop.com. 
3. Compost/soil - Dump on top of mulch. Rob used mushroom compost as his soil or growing medium. Rob got his mushroom compost from local mushroom farm for very cheap.
4. Water - Rain and irrigation
5. Light - Try to get full sun
6. Plants - This is your food!

Plants can come from seeds, cuttings, or seedlings. 

Where to get seeds
Local to Central Florida:

National seed suppliers:

You can also exchange or purchase plants, seeds, cuttings, or seedlings at local meetups such as Orlando Permaculture. Rob's recommended nurseries to find and purchase plants can be found at bottom of this page.

What Rob Ate and Why

One of Rob's biggest challenges was meeting his caloric needs. He overcame the lack of grains by relying on tubers eg sweet potatoes.

  • Biggest sweet potato Rob grew and ate was over 5 lbs
  • Both the potato and the greens are edible, making sweet potato very efficient crop

Another calorically dense crop Rob found easy to grow was cassava.

Rob also foraged wild yams in local forests and more urban areas such as parks near golf courses. The biggest wild yam he found was over 150 lbs!

Papaya is another top food to grow and that Rob recommends in Orlando.
  • Can be eaten green, can ferment into kraut
  • Trees produces tons of food. Rob estimates he only ate 5% of the food his papaya trees produced over the course of the year.
Seminole pumpkin also produces tons of food and was easy to grow. Seeds from 2 pumpkins grew to 169 pumpkins. They keep extremely well even in summertime heat. Rob kept a big collection of pumpkins in his tiny house. He believes they will stay for fresh for a year or more.

A favorite quote: "Growing your own food is like printing your own money."

Bananas - grow extremely well in Central Florida. Rob grew bananas and found wild bananas within 5 miles of his home in 3 different locations including Dickinson Azalea Park 
  • Bananas can be dried, fried, and used to make flour
Coconuts were very important. High in calories, high in fat, high in protein.
  • Uses: milk, meat, dried, pressed for oil, milk by blending.
  • Robs estimates he ate 200 coconuts over the year.
  • Can’t grow in Orlando but can be foraged in south Florida.
Protein Sources
Grown in the garden: Pigeon peas and southern peas.
  • Grew pigeon pea tree. Good protein source. Used like lentils
Rob tried sunflower seeds and peanuts but had no luck. Squirrels were a big nuisance.

Animal protein options Rob considered: Fish, squirrel, roadkill deer, wild boar, raising animals.
  • Planned on primarily fishing for mullet because they only eat plants - less health risk from bioaccumulate like mercury in tuna
  • Mullet were hard to catch and Rob didn't end up relying on them as much as planned
    Started eating squirrels because they were eating his sunflowers. 
    • This turned a problem (squirrels eating a protein-rich crop) into a solution (squirrels became protein-rich food source)
    • Rob says he ate only 9 squirrels total
    Regarding the general perception toward food like mullet fish in the US: "Most everything not highly regarded by American culture is an amazing food!"

    Didn’t hunt wild boar but thought about it because they are invasive in Florida. Most hunters use bait to lure boar. Since Rob couldn't grow the bait himself this made using it against the principles of his project.

    Likewise, Rob didn’t raise animals for food because he couldn’t raise all the food for them to eat. 

    Rob did eat deer roadkill, but not in Florida. He found two that were too old and the heat had made it too risky to eat. When he went to Wisconsin he found 5 deer. This helped make up for the protein deficiency he was facing up to that point.

    Sweets
    Rob has always enjoyed sweets and loves chocolate.

    Honey was a staple during his project. He probably harvested 5 gallons from the bees he stewarded. Honey provided calories, improved the enjoyment of meals, and was also good for fermenting.

    Sugar cane was an option but Rob's source rotted before he could make use of it.
    • This brought up the point that any one thing isn't challenging, but trying to do everything is challenging. This was a principle Rob had to keep in mind throughout the project to stay focused on what worked and not let too many distractions or things he'd like to do consume too much of his attention.
    Salt
    Rob derived his salt from the ocean water. Method is simple - essentially just boil in a pot until you are left with just salt. A gallon of ocean water yields about a half cup of salt. So 5 gallons could give you enough for a year. Rob suggested you could also just let water evaporate instead of boil.

    Mushrooms 
    Rob learned about foraging for mushrooms with local experts including Andy Firk, Green Deane, and Jon Martin
    Chanterelle mushrooms are relatively easy to find in Florida
    • How to never get sick from eating mushrooms: Be 100% sure it’s edible. Get triple confirmation i.e. get 3 separate individuals to confirm for you that you can eat it
    Medicine
    Rob is a strong believer that food is medicine. As part of the rules for this project, he could not take any conventional medicines including vitamins or supplements. Instead he had to rely on the food he grew or foraged to keep him in good health. It seemed to work because Rob did not get sick for the entirety of the project.
    Here is a summary of the foods Rob relied on to keep from getting sick:
    • Elderberry syrup (foraged in Orlando plus honey - took almost every day)
    • Fire cider (made vinegar from fruit plus garlic onion pepper more - ate almost every day)
    • Turmeric (grows amazing here; can just buy organic in store and plant in yard)
    • Ginger, garlic, reishi shrooms, herbal teas
    • Plantagos (broad leaf plantains) - Add honey and it prevents swelling from beestings 
    Rob is a big advocate of fermentation for getting more nutrients out of food and to help with digestion. On this topic, Rob highly recommends reading Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
    • "Wild fermentation" is essentially harvesting bacteria and yeast from the air
    • Rob ate sauerkraut, green papaya kraut, fruit scrap vinegar (from plants like pineapples), honey wine, jun, kombucha, ginger beer (not alcoholic beer), and more
    • Used underground storage to keep fermentation jars cooler
    • Ate 6 month old kraut that was sitting through summer after trip to Wisconsin. Was delicious.
    Fruit Foraging
    Incomplete lists:
    • Easy to grow in Central FL: loquat, mulberry, star fruit, Suriname cherry, bananas, avocado, citrus, passion fruit
    • Abundant forage: mango (knocked on doors in South Florida to harvest from trees in people's yards - most said Yes), prickly pear cactus, white sapote
    • Mentions: persimmon, sea grapes, coco plum, java plum, pond apple - rob has success with these
    Rob used a fruit picker to get to hard to reach fruits at tops of trees. 
    .
    Spices
    Rob said his meals mostly were not bland because he was able to grow lots of herbs and spices including papalo, cilantro, dill, thyme, garlic, sage, coriander, curry leaf tree, blue leaf basil and many more
    .
    Greens 
    Collard greens are Rob's top annual greens recommendation. Also grew kale and others
    Preferred perennial greens: moringa, katuk, sweet potato greens, purslane is one of his fave foods on earth, perennial spinaches of many varieties
    Moringa is Rob's #1 recommendation of any plant. Super nutrient dense. "True miracle food." Very easy to grow. "If everyone grew one it would change Florida."
    .
    Foraging Greens
    • Many types of "weeds" almost everywhere in the US can be eaten e.g. Bidens Alba is a super abundant weed usually plucked out of yards, but it's very nutritious and has medicinal uses. Can be a salad garnish, both the flower and greens can be eaten
    • Other edible weeds include dollar weed, got kola, oxalis, purslane
    Water
    Rob used a rainwater harvesting system with filtration at his home for the majority of his water supply but he did drink municipal water as well. 
    .
    "Honorable Mention" foods:
    • Carrots and beets
    • Tindora cucumber
    • Peppers
    • Everglades tomatoes
    • Daikon radish
    • Green tea
    • Roselie
    • Amaranth grain
    • Green beans, yard long beans
    • Cucumber
    • Kohirabi
    • Celery
    • Eggplant
    • Potato
    • Foraging: acorns, hickory nuts, beauty berry, Smilax, cattail, bitter melon, Brazilian pepper, American nightshade, Yaupon holly for caffeine (abundant ornamental tree in Central Florida; North America's only native caffeinated plant; Rob called it "Yerba mate" of Central Florida)
    • Acorns must not be underestimated. Oak trees are present on every continent except Antarctica. They drop tons of acorns. If you tried hard you could get almost all your calories from acorns.
    Failures
    • Peanuts: Some grew but not many decided not to exert the effort
    • Sunflowers: Squirrel issues
    • Sugar cane for sugar: Didn't get to it before it rotted. Made up for it with use of honey.
    • Coconut oil: got 4 ounces for year. No oil was a big challenge overall.
    Notes on meals and meal prep:
    • Diverse, delicious meals
    • Probably ate over 500 lbs of sweet potatoes. Mashed with pigeon peas and other greens was a common meal
    • Another meal was boiled yuca in green wrap with kraut garnish, sometimes with fish
    • Had no oven for baking. Used at a friend's house.

    Trip to Wisconsin

    • Was away for 82 days with no garden.
    • Prepped by dehydrating lots of foods.
    • Had 100k calories with him when left. A couple hundred pounds.
    • Foraged a lot and fished on the trip
    • Foraged 100 different foods in Wisconsin. Apples were huge. Made apple sauce.
    Rob grew his own toilet paper - plecranthus barbatus. Two cuttings in the ground led to infinite TP. Beautiful blue flower. Can make teas.
    • "Everywhere you go there’s a perennial TP growing."
    “Bitter is medicine” - generally bitter plants are medicinal
    .
    Pest control - Never applied a pesticide, even organic.
    • Had pests. For instance, pumpkins got ravaged by caterpillars.
    • Diversity is key. Polyculture vs monoculture. Pests don’t go to different species so it's important to have many different varieties. 
    • Need healthy soil, enough sun, planting at right place, right time of year
    Regarding the assumption that you "can't grow food in Orlando:" Rob believes people who say this are actually trying to grow the wrong food in the wrong way. For instance, it's not a good idea to go to the grocery store and pick foods from there to try to grow in your yard. Rob figured out what grows easiest in the region, what had the fewest pests, and was nutrient dense. He didn't try to reinvent the wheel. He relied heavily on local knowledge.
    .
    Hard times: The project was very hard to complete, and there were good times and bad. Rob thought about giving up many times. He was particularly concerned with a fat and protein deficiency, which had him feeling suboptimal. When he went to Wisconsin he caught fish and ate venison which helped make up for this deficiency and got him back on track.
    .
    Health - Never got sick, maintained weight, 15% body fat
    .
    Misc. Recommended Resources:
    More details and more exhaustive lists of recommended resources for gardening beginners in Orlando, Florida can be found at: Robgreenfield.tv/grow

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