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Coalface The ‘tough and dirty’ business of the last charcoal burners

In the heart of central Switzerland only nine charcoal burners still produce charcoal by hand. Farmer Markus Wicki is one of them. 

The Entlebuch, a remote valley in canton Lucerne, has been used for coal making for centuries. Farmers do it as a sideline to boost their income. There’s plenty of forest in the region but it’s hard transporting wood through the impassable surroundings. The solution is to turn it into coal on the spot. 

Wicki and his friends feature in a documentary filmexternal link that illuminates the tradition and the daily struggle for the survival of this skill. “It’s a real slog to run a farm and make coal on the side,” he says with a soot-covered face. 

He runs a calf-fattening business, but he earns more than half of his income from charcoal burningexternal link

Wicki and his helpers, mostly retired local farmers, pile up about six tonnes of wood for a coal kiln. “Burning charcoal is a tough and dirty business,” he says. 

Free-time doesn’t exist during the charcoal burning – the fire has to be watched around the clock. Wicki says he’s probably the last person to burn coal on the farm: his three daughters have other plans. It’s difficult finding young people to do the strenuous work. 

Ups and downs 

The art of making coal from wood has a long tradition in the area. Charcoal generates a lot of heat, and in the past it was used for the extraction of ore, for the production of glass and in forging. 

However, with the expansion of transport routes and electrification, demand fell rapidly. Irons and cookers could be operated electrically and cheaper coal was imported. After the Second World War, many coal kilns were no longer used. The future of charcoal burning looked bleak. 

Then in 1986 Otto Ineichen, a parliamentarian and industrialist, had the idea of making barbecue charcoal instead of industrial charcoal. The plan worked and today the Entlebuch farmers sell 17,000 six-kilo sacks a year at “Otto’s”, a Swiss retailer. 

The burners can’t even keep up with demand. In Switzerland, 10,000 tonnes of charcoal are burnt a year, mainly for barbecuing – 1% from the Napf regionexternal link.

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