DUNDEE - Even though she is only 11, Alexis Harnica knows firsthand the hardscrabble life of a farmer.
The hours are long and exhausting.
The work is dirty and never-ending.
And the pumpkins? Well, they're just big - bigger than Alexis, bigger than most people actually - and hopefully, big enough to win a big national prize this weekend.
Alexis, her two brothers, sister, and parents live at one of only two official weigh-in sites in Michigan and one of only 22 in North America that are participating in the ninth annual Great Pumpkin Commonwealth on Saturday.
The contest, which boasts national prizes of $14,000, seeks to measure the greatest pumpkin in the land each October, comparing the giant fruits from each site before selecting a winner.
John Harnica, Alexis' father, said he began setting aside about 1 percent of his 550-acre farm to raise giant pumpkins as a family project eight years ago.
“It started out just as a novelty for the kids,” Mr. Harnica said. But each year, as they learned what to do and what not to do, the pumpkins grew in scale, and so did their annual business selling them in the front yard.
“The kids sold over 1,200 pumpkins last year, [in front of the Bigelow Road home in Dundee Township] and they've got more than that this year,' Mr. Harnica said. “We've probably got close to 1,000 pumpkins that are between 100 and 200 lbs.”
Farmers across the region have had a particularly bad year after an unusually wet and cold spring and an arid summer. But for whatever reason, Mr. Harnica said, his children's giant pumpkin patch flourished.
“For the bad year we've had, they've gotten lucky. Those [giant pumpkins] require a lot of water, a lot of attention. Most of the time, the more effort you put into the big ones, the better luck you have.”
The pumpkins aren't planted until the first week of June to ensure that they ripen in early October, Mr. Harnica said.
Alexis, who is in sixth grade at Dundee Junior High School, said the labor required over the summer months can be exhausting.
“We do quite a bit of work,” Alexis explained last week while she and the rest of her family planned their harvesting strategy. “We hand plant all the seeds in cells, and once they get an inch or two tall, we plant them out in our field. Then we go out and check on them once in a while.”
The plants have to be constantly pruned back so that they can focus their growing efforts on just one pumpkin, Mr. Harnica said. When things go well and the weather cooperates, a giant pumpkin can add as much as 30 pounds in a day.
The work is done largely by his four children, although Mr. Harnica admits that they benefit from the donated labors of both he and his wife. At the end of the year, the money gets divided up among the four children.
“It goes into the bank, and that's their college money. They can't touch it,” he said.
The world record for a giant pumpkin is 1,262 pounds, which was set last year, while the Monroe County record is 791 pounds, set in 2000.