Returning to the roots
It all started with high-flying dreams of an international life, but in the end their true dreams were realised in the soil of a small village in Northern Savonia.
That’s one way of summing up the journey that Arnevi Rautanen and Juha Utriainen have taken since they started their university studies in the Finnish capital region, where Rautanen studied economics and Utriainen majored in engineering. After several stints abroad, the couple find themselves in the Torstila Manor in the village of Joroinen in Eastern Finland, where they have been farming for the past six years. They grow organic oat and rapeseed on 230 hectares of land. For a family with three children, living in the countryside has been almost entirely positive.
‘The values that brought us to our new home have only grown stronger while living here,’ says Rautanen.
Nowadays, the things the couple holds dear are realised in both their work and their leisure. Twenty years ago, things were different. Back then, two young students felt a conflict brewing between their dreams and reality.
From Paris to Joroinen
Arnevi Rautanen wasn’t supposed to end up in the countryside. She spent part of her childhood outside of her native Finland and dreamed of living abroad. A year in Hong Kong as an exchange student in her teens increased her interest in international issues, and she chose to major in economic geography at the Helsinki School of Economics (now part of Aalto University), focusing on Southeast Asia.
‘During the first few years, I was quite active in my studies and in student activities, living a happy student life. Towards the end of my university experience, I kept busy with a job and participated in a student exchange programme in Taiwan.’
Rautanen envisioned ‘a future fit for a business major.’ She wanted a global career — and she got one. She worked at Nissan for eight years, spending the last two in Paris. Her next step might have been Japan, but Rautanen wanted to return to Finland. She had started to question the direction her career was taking.
‘The business world was characterised by callousness, ruthless competition and materialism, which conflicted with my own values.’
Rautanen had often spent her holidays at her family’s farm in Joroinen. Her cousins lived in the Torstila Manor, which had been in the family’s possession since the 1870s. She had warm memories of playing at the farm as a child, going swimming and riding her bike to fetch fresh milk with her aunt. Rautanen found herself wanting to help at the farm.
‘One spring, I had three weeks of holiday and came to Joroinen to do farm work, but it came to nothing because it rained the whole time,’ Rautanen recalls, sitting in the main room of the manor house, built in 1894.
A high-flying first date
Beside Rautanen sits Juha Utriainen, who also is far from where he imagined his student life would take him. Utriainen studied telecommunications systems at the Helsinki University of Technology, one of Aalto’s precesseding institutions. He was determined not to become a programmer, but the job market of the early 2000s steered him towards software engineering anyway — and it turned out that he liked it. Utriainen started working while he was still studying, but that didn’t stop him from also enjoying student life.
‘The Guild of Electrical Engineering almost carried me away,’ Utriainen says laughing.
After graduating, Utriainen continued working at Accenture. He enjoyed living in Helsinki, but having grown up in the small country town of Orimattila, Utriainen dreamed of a life far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
An encounter in the summer of 2014 led him to love, and to a chance to realise that dream. A friend asked Utriainen, an avid aviation enthusiast, whether he had ever taken a blind date to fly a plane. He had not, but being single, he was open to suggestions. The friend gave him his sister’s telephone number. A week later, Utriainen and Rautanen met at the back gate of the Helsinki-Malmi Airport.
Their first date was heavenly. Not long after they had started dating, Utriainen was ‘absolutely, completely smitten’. They had the same sense of humour and formed a strong team.
Their cooperation was soon put to the test. Rautanen’s aunt was looking for a successor for the Torstila farm. By then, her niece had already done some serious thinking about turning her life around. After dating for only six months, Rautanen told Utriainen that she would soon own a farm in Joroinen.
‘I would have moved here even without Juha. I have no idea what my life and work here would have looked like in that case,’ she says.
She didn’t have to consider that, because Utriainen knew he would join her. The decision became certain when Utriainen — who likes to hunt — visited Torstila for the first time in early 2015 and saw deer sauntering in the fields and the surrounding landscape at its spring best.
Education eased the career change
Taking over the family farm is a long and complicated affair. The couple’s educational background helped them in the process and in planning their future.
‘We knew how to write a business plan, do the related calculations and test different production line scenarios,’ Rautanen says.
At first, the fresh start meant they were constantly gathering information, applying it and solving problems. Rautanen and Utriainen knew nearly nothing about farming, but the same learning principles apply to any kind of work. And as they succeeded, their lessons reaped rewards.
‘When you sow a field for the first time, which is a technically complex operation, and then something starts growing, it’s like, “What the hell! Damn!”’ Utriainen says excitedly.
‘The first sprouts star in quite a few photos,’ says Rautanen, laughing.
Modern farming turned out to be a fascinating combination of the basics of life, the village community, science, the global market and advanced technology, including AI.
But every spring the first sprout still feels like a miracle. The annual cycle and weather conditions set the rhythm of the couple’s life.
Traffic jams and commuting to after-school and after-work activities play no part in the family’s life. When the kids, aged 7 and 5 and 2, come home from school and day care, they join their parents in checking fishing traps and touring the fields to see how the crops are developing. The whole family enjoys scouting and going swimming in the neighbouring town.
But from another angle, the life Rautanen and Utriainen lead is far from basic. Farming is also about running a large-scale global business. It requires an understanding of biology, chemistry and physics. You also have to know how to operate, repair and maintain machinery, understand how the global grain market and food chain works, and master business planning and development.
‘I have a great appreciation for my colleagues who can run and grow their farming businesses profitably,’ Utriainen says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rautanen and Utriainen lead quite a global life in Joroinen. They sell grain to Germany and are looking for new clients in Central Europe. They have had au pairs and trainees from France. Life in Joroinen also has an international vibe in other ways: there are many Ukrainian immigrants, and a nearby salad manufacturer has many foreign employees.
‘The atmosphere is much more multicultural than where we lived before,’ Utriainen says.
Loneliness and community
Rautanen and Utriainen started farming in Torstila in the spring of 2017. The past six years haven’t been without setbacks. When it comes to machinery, weather and legislation, things sometimes go south.
For Rautanen, the most difficult part has been having no other colleagues besides her spouse. At first, the couple hardly knew anyone in the village.
‘Since then, I’ve made friends, and my hobbies have also led to social contacts.’
Rautanen and Utriainen both have clear responsibilities. Rautanen handles the finances, cropping plans, sales and purchases. Utriainen does more practical field work and is responsible for the machinery. But it’s the wife who operates the combine harvester.
Working together is intensive, and tempers may wear thin, particularly in summer, which is the busiest time of the year.
‘But we get through the tough times, too. We energise each other and respect each other’s decisions and efforts,’ says Rautanen.
The countryside needs people and services
The family wants to continue living in the countryside. Besides running their business, Rautanen and Utriainen want to be involved in developing sustainable farming practices, agricultural automation, and new farming technologies. Soil and water conservation and biodiversity are important to them.
The couple also wants to develop the Finnish countryside. According to Utriainen, keeping rural areas populated is important especially for domestic food production and security of supply.
‘There’s no food production without people to do it. And they won’t do it without other people or services, such as schools and shops.’
A living countryside is also about landscape and tourism value — and first and foremost about life, adds Rautanen.
‘In my experience, the countryside is a good place to live.’
M.Sc. Economics from the Helsinki School of Business (now part of Aalto University) 2006.
Nissan Nordic Europe Oy, Section Manager, Accessories 2006–2012.
Nissan Europe SAS, Sales & Marketing Manager, Accessories 2012–2014.
Suunto Oy, Global Brand Manager 2014–2017.
Torstila farm, farmer and entrepreneur 2017–
interested in theatre. Was involved in a local theatre group after moving to Joroinen.
a networker. Organises weekly meetings for immigrants in the area.
a member of the board in an organic farming co-operative.
M.Sc. Engineering from the Helsinki University of Technology (now part of Aalto University) 2004.
worked as a programmer at Accenture and diploma worker at LM Ericsson alongside his studies.
Accenture, Senior Manager, Financial Services 2004–2013.
Avanade, Country Director of Delivery 2013–2017.
Torstila farm, farmer and entrepreneur 2017–
An avid participator in woodworking classes at a local adult education centre.
A shooting sports enthusiast.
An ice swimmer. The couple like to relax at the Kolppa ice swimming site and sauna.
Text: Marika Lehto
Photos: Anna-Katri Hänninen
This article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 32, April 2023.