Speculative Optimism installed in the MERL archives, Photograph Deirdre O'Mahony 2017

Speculative Optimism

A film produced while on the Welcome Foundation Livestock residency in 2017 at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading.

The project began with the proposition, is ‘carbon-neutral’ beef possible? Research into the effect of different kinds of forage on animal and soil health was being conducted by two groups at Reading University, the LegumePlus Project and the Diverse Forages project at the Centre for Dairy Research (CEDAR). Both projects included research into Sainfoin, a variety of forage once used extensively in the south of England. Sainfoin has many beneficial effects. It is an efficient wormer, grows in near drought conditions, bees love it, and it fixes nitrogen in soil and it can reduce methene production within a mixed diet. Sainfoin fell out of use with the modernisation of agriculture but is now under investigation for its potential use-value given climate change, a global shortage of nitrogen and the collapse of bee colonies.

The residency provided access to the MERL archives to investigate references to historical forages like Sainfoin and review some of the extensive collection of historical documentary films produced to teach increased efficiency in agriculture. The resulting essayistic film was shot in the museum archives, at the University of Reading’s Hall Farm and a Cotswold Seed’s Honeydale Farm and factory and points to the history of changing agricultural policies that now requires farmers to be economically efficient, practice environmental sustainability and maintain the visual premium and heritage value of landscapes. Some might argue this is an impossible task. Refusing a singular position or narrative, the film relies on unconscious visual associations inspired by the imagery to provide unexpected insights into the complexities of global food production today.

Produced and Directed by Deirdre O’Mahony; Editor:  Connie Farrell; Camera: Tom Flanagan; Sound Bob Brennan; Additional Camera: Deirdre O’Mahony; Design: Kaye Tolland

Particular thanks to: The Staff at the Museum of English Rural Life; Cotswold Seeds Ltd., Honeydale Farm Dr. David Humphries, Dr. Anna Thompson CEDAR, University of Reading Hall Farm. Dr. Irene Muller-Harvey and the LegumePlus Project, University of Reding, Alex Lasater, The Dale Lasater Ranch, Matheson, Colorado, USA.

Exhibited:Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), Reading UK (2017) Galway International Arts Festival (2018)