Barrel maker says it can’t find workers

DSCN0296.JPGEarlier this week, I had a lovely conversation with this area’s only coopers. Yes, Todd County has a barrel making business: Black Swan Cooperage, just north of Clotho, next to the Berkness Sawmill. Heidi and Russ Karasch sat down with me and I learned about the fascinating history and present day job of barrel making.

I’ll be writing about the cooperage for print publications but one of the Karaschs’ comments really hit me as I look into the future of this county. They said that they can’t find employees here in Todd County. Historically, becoming a cooper required a seven year apprenticeship. Apprentices received a small amount of pay but since they started young, often around 14 (which Heidi did as she learned the trade from her father), by the time they were ready to start a family, they had a living wage. Black Swan Cooperage pays a living wage; starting pay is $10 / hour. With modern day mechanization of parts of the process, it takes about two years to become a good cooper. The cooperage invests in its employees by teaching the necessary skills.

According to a recent MPR essay, our society has so emphasized education and technology that the number of skilled artisans is at an all time low. The essayist suggested a return to valuing the skills of hand work. But, are young people willing to take on the physical labor that goes with hand work?

The Karasches recently hired six new employees. Only one showed up on the first day of work. They don’t know why the others didn’t arrive for work. They tried to hire non-English speaking workers but found the communication barrier a stumbling block in crafting barrels.

This is one small example but what would this mean if it becomes a trend? What happens to an aging county if the work force is unwilling or unavailable to support the local economy?

  • Zebulun

    Wow, I had no idea these kinds of opportunities still existed in America. Are they still looking for workers?

  • Nancy

    Yes, they are. You can e-mail me at leatherwood@wisper-wireless and I’ll give you the contact information.

  • Tammy

    If only I lived closer. I think this would be a nice change from the office setting that I’ve been in for so many years. To support their business, are the barrels available for purchase to private parties?

  • Nancy

    Black Swan Cooperage can’t keep up with the demand for their barrels. They’re moving to a larger facility…in Park Rapids. They’re hiring now and will be training workers at the Clotho cooperage in September. They will occasionally sell to private parties. Did you catch KSTP’s Jason Davis’ report on their business?

  • loaliowLica

    so informative, thanks to tell us.

  • Jeff Thelemann

    I Just watched your Business on the road again with Jason Davis. I’m woundering if your oak barrels have been used by wine makers. I have a small vineyard and would be interested in barrels that would hold 10 to 20 gal of liquid.

    looking for a price list.

    Sorry you cold not find workers

    Jeff T.

  • Nancy

    Jeff T.

    I’ve forwarded your message to Black Swan Cooperage.


  • Linda A.

    What a great business and good for you Heidi and Russ, It’s my understanding that barrel making is pretty much a lost art,. I’m down near the twin cities otherwise I would love togive it a try.

    Very interesting.

    Please forward to the Karaschs’