After Finnish farmers Leena Valkonen and her husband Esko gave up dairy farm in 2008 in Ristiina, Mikkeli in Lakeland Finland, they started to offer bed and breakfast accommodation at their home farm in summertime and build ecological log cabins for holiday-makers to rent.

Over the years, Leena Valkonen´s working week and tasks have changed totally. She joined the Time4Help peer group coaching to get tools for her own time management.

Time4Help offers 45-65-year-old Finnish woman entrepreneurs and professionals a chance to form small peer groups in order to tackle common challenges. Project manager Kaija Villman will then find experts to tailor them coaching according to their wishes.

Leena Valkonen first heard about Time4Help project from an old acquintance Ristiina-based Anne Mäkeläinen who is specialized in creating art and cultural concepts inspired by Astuvansalmi rock paintings known to be among largest in Scandinavia. Having attended several projects, Valkonen had realized that colleagues who joined the Time4Help peer group shared an interest in time management issues.

It is good to discuss things with colleagues.

”We managed to gain mutual confidence when we started with sharing each other things about our lives and let others comment. There was talk about challenges that sole entrepreneurs face that is to say how much can one person expect to achieve alone. How to do marketing? And how to cope with challenges?”

It gave me energy and helped to cope.

From a dairy farmer to digital expert

In recent years, one of the main challenges for Leena Valkonen has been providing services to customers using digital platforms. In practice that means marketing on digital platforms, creating content for social media and communicating with customers online.

”For some people working on digital channels can be natural. For me it has been a tough challenge. I have tried to hang on and I have been looking for help from various projects. Earlier there was no need for me to sell dairy products myself but now I should be interactive in social media all the time. There are many digital channels and one should always be creating some new ways to interact there.”

Valkonens update Facebook and Instagram accounts. In addition, they have a web site and use social media for marketing purposes.

”Today I should be a social media personality, marketing manager, bookkeeper, cleaner and customer service person. A multitasker. Luckily, we can share maintenance tasks together with my husband.”

Digitalization is a hard challenge.

In order to cope better with their work load, Valkonens have shortened the reception time for arriving customers by one hour. Earlier customers were expected to arrive by nine in the evening but now they are expected to register by eight.

”That way we were able to shorten our working time by seven hours weekly and we now get to go to the sauna by the lake in time. Going to the sauna is one of the things that helps us cope. In the wintertime we have started to play billiards for an hour while heating the sauna. In the autumn and winter we travel either together or by separately. In the winter it is easier to relax and I get to sleep longer then. At least eight hours.”

In the summer it is common that customers visit the farm to see chicken and sheep at the yard. In the wintertime there are long-term customers who are usually not served breakfast.

”We are used to this kind of life now and to the fact that customers come and go. In the wintertime it is not that crowded but in the summertime we need to be here all day long. However, usually we ask customers to call and let us know when they are coming.”

Valkonens rent bed linen to their customers and offer a possibility to clean the cabins upon departure for an additional fee. A laundry service nearby takes care of washing bed linen but Leena Valkonen takes care of cleaning the cabins herself.

No compromises with sustainibility

Valkonens were the first in their region to receive Green Key and STF certificates that prove that sustainibility is taken into account in everything they do. Cabins have been built of logs from local forests, termal heating warms the cabins, ecologically produced electricity is being used, waste is being sorted and composted. Valkonens have designed biking routes suitable for electrical bikes. They also hire electical boat motors for their customers.

Help is needed for counting carbon compensation.

”We also take social responsibility seriously. There is no discrimination here and we are member in the Finnish Rainbow-friendly community.”

For Valkonens IT is an ongoing process to try and improve their services. The Time4Help coach Pekka Krook helped them to join the Sauna Finland network because Valkonens have many kinds of saunas, also an original smoke sauna.

You always find new things from projects.

”It would be great to combine going to the sauna and herbs in some new way. There could be, for example, self-made herb selections for foot baths and honey used for peeling skin. Another Time4Help participant Seija Lipsanen has knowledge that I could learn from. We could, for example, offer groups of women relaxation days together. This was one of the ideas that I got during Time4Help coaching days.”

In the same coaching group there was also Irina Ravantti who has developed boat cruises, accommodation and catering services with her husband at Summer Restaurant Kallioniemi by Lake Saimaa in Ristiina. Valkonens have included Kallioniemi along their bike routes and recommend its food services and boat cruises to Astuvansalmi rock paintings.

Time4Help encouraged for new kinds of co-operation.

In addition to new networks and joint marketing, Leena Valkonen is happy for the empowering energy that Time4Help created between participants.

”Each of the meetings was really empowering. The coaches gave us ideas of how to make different things happen. The peer group gave energy and helped to cope.”

Text, photo and videos: Päivi Kapiainen-Heiskanen