Paula Cranmer-Underhill displays some of her Haida Gwaii hats at the Lytton Farmers’ Market.

Paula Cranmer-Underhill displays some of her Haida Gwaii hats at the Lytton Farmers’ Market.

New life for historic Lytton farm

Spapium Farm, on the west side of the river, has a new lease on life thanks to the efforts of Paula Cranmer-Underhill.

Bernie Fandrich

The Spapium Farm, perched on a picturesque bench overlooking the kumsheen (“great forks”) of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers at Lytton, has been in Paula Cranmer-Underhill’s family since the 1800s.

She inherited the farm from her First Nations grandfather Raymond Thom, and has been working hard to transform it into a productive, crop-producing acreage again. The farm’s name comes from the Nlaka’pamux word meaning “little prairie”.

Half-a-century ago, the ancient river benches on the west side of the Fraser across from Lytton were green with fruitful farms and orchards. Today, most are brown and covered in invasive weeds.

“Our land sat vacant for a long, long time,” says Cranmer-Underhill. “The farm still had 19 old apple and pear trees that produced fruit for 100 years, but nothing else of any value grew there.

Old fruit trees and a derelict building were almost all that remained of the farm when Cranmer-Underhill decided to revitalize it.

“I was very, very fortunate last year. Erin and Ron Coghlan from Stein Mountain Farm Organics, just up the river from me, brought several truckloads of bedding plants to help me get started. I suddenly had potatoes, watermelon, three kinds of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers to get into the soil. I had my work cut out for me.”

For Cranmer-Underhill, her little family farm is an emotional journey, perhaps even more than an economic one.

Tears well up as she speaks about her ancestors; about how strategic the site was to her family; how she was given the privilege of carrying on a family tradition; and how living off the land was critical for her family in the past.

“My mother is a great mentor,” she confides. “She insists that I make the farm sustainable and that I not spend a nickel of anyone else’s money to make it productive. I have to make it profitable on my own. I have to make a living investing my time, my energy, my vision, and my money.”

Her dream goes beyond the day-to-day work needed to grow vegetables. She envisions the farm producing traditional medicines, and perhaps becoming a wellness centre and a tourism destination.

To accomplish her goal she attends workshops and seminars whenever she can, to continue learning about her First Nations culture and way of life. She even learned to weave the famous Haida Gwaii hats. “I have links to the Haida culture in my ancestry,” she says.

She is currently vice president of, and actively involved in, Lytton’s Farmer’s Market, which was ranked last year as the number one small town market in the province.

“I’m honouring a family tradition,” she says.  “My daughter loves working on the farm, and for all of us it provides a strong emotional connection to the land, to our ancestors, and to our traditional lifestyle.”