Healthy Soils

Healthy Soils
A story to explain the mission of the Urbanmonks Thinktank


This is the story of a tomato farmer named Walt who was part of a lineage of tomato farmers known for many generations for growing the tastiest heirloom tomatoes in all of the Northeast. 

Each spring, Farmer Walt would plant tens of thousands of tomato seeds and within two weeks, his greenhouse would become a nursery filled with little baby tomato plants. 

Within the next two months, most of these plants would be sold at the public markets to gardeners who loved to plant these tomato varieties in their backyard plots.  The remaining plants would be planted in the farmer's field, producing big juicy tomatoes, with fascinating old names like Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Black Cherry, San Marzano.   

A walk through one of Walt’s greenhouses would fill you with the most intoxicating tomato perfumes.  The plants were strong – thick stemmed and bright green.  Any visitor could attest, for without fail, they knew it, intuitively - this was a healthy nursery.  

Now just because Walt had a healthy nursery did not mean that every plant was perfectly healthy.  A few plants here and there would inevitably grow sick, but even these plants Farmer Walt could steer back to health.  He would remove them from the thousands and give them some extra care - placing them in the warmest part of the greenhouse and providing them with extra nutrients and medicine. 


Walt produced 100 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes every year with great success.  But then, in his twenty-fifth year of running the greenhouse, something changed.  For some reason, more than just a few plants got sick that year.  And more the year after and the year after. 

It was not just the usual – a few plants here and there becoming sick.  This was different.  Walt would try and take care of the sick plants and give them extra care, move them into the warmest spot, give them some medicine, but the numbers of sick plants grew and grew and grew.  Walt was unable to care for them all. 

Each year there were more sick plants.  More plants that needed extra care.  More than he could tend to.  There was not enough time in the days and the weeks.  The problem became so bad that the disease was spreading: sick plants were making healthy plants sick.  

The whole greenhouse was ill.  


Winter is the time of the year for reflection – especially for a farmer.  This was the beauty of working the land in a part of the world with such vivid seasons.  Birth, growing, reproduction, decline, and death happened every year.  In winter, the harvest was in, the work was slower, and the days were shorter.  Each winter, Walt would sip his tea late into the night and reflect on the season that had ended and plan for the coming season.  

Those winters when the greenhouse was ill were tough winters.  Walt spent many long nights thinking of his tomato plants.  His old approach to sick plants was to treat the individual plants when they were sick, but now too many plants were sick each year.  He knew he needed a new approach. 

Over those winters he studied soils for many hours a day.  He developed a new plan of action:  he would invest more time and resources into building the best soil possible for his plants.  His new approach would be to help the plants before they were sick, to be as proactive as possible, to invest his resources into soil instead of medicine. 


Spring is the season of hope, of new beginnings.  It is time where we move out of reflection and planning and into physical work.  It is a time of growth, of excitement, of potential. 

Well Walt carried great hopes into that next spring.  With his much-improved understanding of the healthiest soil to build, Farmer Walt mixed compost and peat and organic fertilizer and built the strongest soils he could.  

He then planted the seeds from all his tomato varieties.
Weeks passed and Walt lost a lot of sleep, up late with excitement, anxious about how the plants would grow.  

Soon the days were growing longer and the seeds were becoming little plants.  A farmer’s inspections yielded encouraging results - strong roots and stems.   As the plants grew into their second month, it was like old times, where most plants were healthy and very few were sick.


Summer is the season of hard labor.  And in this year of the new soil, the plants grew strong in both the farmer’s fields and in the gardens all across the region.  The harvests were heavy come August.  Many a Saturday was spent canning sauce for the winter.  

Farmer Walt knew that there would be other challenges to come along soon, but for now, he came home for dinner each evening exhausted from good work, and pleased.  In his own fields that summer, he harvested the tastiest crop of tomatoes he could remember.  

He would go on to live and farm for many years.  As he grew into an old farmer, he became known for many short little phrases that contained a lifetime of wisdom. Most famous of all was his response to the common question, how are your plants so strong?
If I could choose between the healthiest seeds in the world or the healthiest soil in the world, I would choose the soil.  For not only do healthy soils make healthy plants, but healthy soils become healthy plants.  

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Imagine that we are all tomato plants.  And we are also farmers.  This is the complex challenge of being humans, we actively create the culture (the soils) in which we live and grow. 

Our problem is the same as Walt's:  too many in our families and schools and neighborhoods have become emotionally unwell.  Anxiety, depression, addiction, adhd - these are common maladies.  In the greenhouse of our culture, many plants are not well.  Our cultural response is reactive (after the injury) and individual-oriented.  This response is important, life-saving work.  But at some point, we must step back, have a winter of reflection and study, and explore how to re-create the soils of culture - the culture of our homes, our relationships, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods.

We must look at the locales where plants are the most healthy, we must see what soils are working.  Our soils are tremendously variable: in some locales the soils are great and in others the soils are not healthy.  We must learn from these scenarios.  We must learn how to build healthy cultural soils.


Please send your thoughts and responses.  Your thoughts on this topic are important.  We are collecting them as part of our emotional census.  And please encourage your friends and family to become involved.