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August 20, 2020

Faces of Fauquier: Farming suits his “personality”

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“I think, in the end, this is where I wanted to be,” Matt Davenport says of Hollin Farms. “It was a gradual process — that I came back to it.
Sometimes I don’t even get off the farm for a week or more. The happy dog doesn’t look over the fence. It’s been a good life.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Delaplane man’s life could have gone in a couple of directions.

In the span of seven years, Matt Davenport earned two college degrees — a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in agricultural and biological engineering — and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.

For a time, “I kind of toyed with maybe moving to a city and getting an engineering job and all that kind of thing,” he recalled.

But in 1997 — the year he earned the master’s degree at Cornell University — Mr. Davenport realized that he wanted to return to and help run the family cattle farm off Route 17 in Northern Fauquier.

“I think, in the end, this is where I wanted to be,” said Mr. Davenport, who grew up on Hollin Farms. “It was a gradual process — that I came back to it. And it’s worked out. It suits my personality.”

To generate more income, Mr. Davenport and his wife Shannon in 2002 decided to diversify the farm — planting peach and then plum, apricot, pear, cherry and apple trees and a “whole lineup” of fruits and vegetables, with the intention of a few years later starting a pick-your-own operation.

“It’s hard to make it exclusively in a beef cattle operation, unless you’re so vast that it would make sense,” the farm manager explained. “We’re probably one of the larger herds in Fauquier. But when you pencil it out, it’s kind of a tough business.”

Hollin Farms maintains a herd of about 225 Angus cattle. Through “cross-marketing,” it sells beef to many of the pick-your-own customers.

Pick-your-own and beef sales ordinarily generate an equal amount of revenue, Mr. Davenport said.

But the coronavirus pandemic has proven a “boon” to the pick-your-own side of the business, he said.

“The COVID thing has hit a lot of businesses really hard,” Mr. Davenport said. “But we’ve actually done pretty well, because, I guess, there were so few possibilities for people to get out and about in Northern Virginia.

“A lot of times, people felt more comfortable coming to an open-air setting and picking their own fruits and vegetables than they would be in an enclosed grocery store.”

Because of that, “we’ve been up at least a third” in revenue “from a normal year.”

On busy days — usually the weekends — “several hundred” pick-your-own customers visit the farm, Mr. Davenport said.

The family owns and rents a combined 2,000 acres or so.

In 1950, Matt’s late grandfather Robert Davenport bought the land that would become Hollin Farms, where he kept about 250 Angus cows and sold breeding stock to commercial cattle operations.

The Virginia Cattlemen’s Association once named him cattleman of the year.

Accomplished in his other career, Robert in the 1940s developed the award-winning Hollin Hills — an approximately 450-home community in Fairfax County that brought “mid-century modern architecture” to the metropolitan area.

He died in 2002 at age 96.

Like his grandfather, he learned on the job the practice and the pleasures of farming, Mr. Davenport said.

“One of the nice things is you’re your own boss. My commute is only a few hundred yards to my barn. Sometimes I don’t even get off the farm for a week or more. The happy dog doesn’t look over the fence. It’s been a good life.”

• Age
48

• Home 
Near Delaplane

• Work
Manager, Hollin Farms, near Delaplane, 1998 to present.

• Why do you do the job?
I enjoy the challenge and being out in this beautiful countryside. Every year is different in terms of what Mother Nature is going to deal. You have to get used the idea that there are just some things you can’t control.

It’s satisfying to raise a good crop that people enjoy.

• Family
Wife, Shannon, 45; children, Henry, 16, Marjorie, 15, and Leo, 12.

• Education
Master’s degree, agricultural and biological engineering, Cornell University, 1997; bachelor’s degree, mechanical engineering, West Virginia University, 1994; Fauquier High School, 1990.

• Church involvement
Member, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Delaplane.

• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
All my life, except when I was away at college and in the Peace Corps.

• Why do you live here? 
It’s where I grew up and where my family and friends live. My grandfather bought the farm in 1950 and we have been here since. And, it’s a great place to live.

• How do you describe this county? 
Fauquier is truly blessed to have resources — from the wonderful community-minded people, to the unspoiled farmland and natural beauty. It’s really impressive that Fauquier has managed to hang onto what people value about the area, whereas so many of our neighboring counties got built up with housing developments.

Everything is a trade-off. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. I commend the county leadership for staying on course.

• What would you change about Fauquier?
It would be good to further incentivize the use of farmland for actual farming through the land-use tax structure. Currently, a lot of what was once good farmland is simply mowed like a large lawn or allowed to grow up in bushes, while receiving the same reduced tax valuation as land that is farmed. This land is in what is known as the “open space” land-use program, but it doesn't provide the same level of economic, employment and cultural benefits to the county.

I would create a two-tiered system whereby land that is being farmed would receive a somewhat more favorable tax valuation than land in the open space program. Many other counties use a system such as this.

• What do you do for fun? 
Kayaking on Goose Creek, fishing in the spring, hiking and hunting as the farming season slows down after October.

• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
Sky Meadows State Park.

• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years? 
Marshall will have a lot bigger population, but the surrounding countryside will be pretty much as it is now.

Some of the farmland will change hands, and some will be bought by people who have little understanding of farming and country living. We always hope that the new owners will be good and decent neighbors.

• Favorite TV show?
“Columbo”

• Favorite movie? 
“Jaws”

• Favorite book?
“Maps and Notes of Upper Fauquier County Virginia” by B. Curtis Chappelear.

• Favorite vacation spot? 
Chincoteague, Va.

• Favorite food? 
Oysters

• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom? 
My friend and neighbor Bill Green told me: “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

The first mouse gets caught in the trap. You don’t want to just dive into something head-first. If something looks like it’s going to work out, then move forward.

• Who’s your hero and why?
It’s hard to pick just one. A lot of local people made an impression on me growing up around here, and many of them have since passed away. They were from all walks of life, rich and poor.

• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery? 
I might use some of it to buy some more ground. The rest I’d save.

Have a suggestion?
Do you know someone who lives in Fauquier County you would like to see in Faces of Fauquier? Email Don Del Rosso at Don@FauquierNow.com or Lou Emerson at LKE@fauquiernow.com
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Truepat · August 21, 2020 at 6:49 am
A great Fauquier family continuing with the culture Fauquier has been known for....
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