Dublin-born Ciara Gorst, Head of Agriculture at Co-op (formerly The Co-op, or The Co-operative) in the UK, will address this year’s Women in Dairy conference, which will be held in Worcester, on September 20.

The theme of the conference is ‘Through change, comes opportunity’.

Gorst, who is from a farming background, had a strong interest in the food supply chain. This led her to combine her knowledge of agriculture, with science-based food studies.

Passionate about the promotion of female leaders within agriculture, she is responsible for the professional development of five female agricultural managers in her team at Co-op.

Drawing on her varied experience, she said:

A career path is all about gaining as much experience as possible in many areas. Take risks and opportunities.  A retail world can provide a completely mixed bag of highs and lows, but each brings a learning, and empowers you to move forward.

Gorst moved to the UK’s north west after graduating from UCD with a BSc, and a PhD in food microbiology, almost 20 years ago.

This was completed in conjunction with Cadbury, after she received a scholarship from the Irish American Partnership. After completing her PhD, she gained experience working at Cadbury’s manufacturing sites, enjoying success within this area of research.

Her move to the UK was prompted after securing a role with Kepak, well-known in the micro-snacking sector. She worked at the company’s UK and Republic of Ireland manufacturing sites.

Her focus was across development and technical functions, ensuring high-quality supply chains that delivered innovative and quality products for customers. During this period, Gorst gained experience working in partnership with multiple UK and Irish retail chains.

Her next step was to work with leading meat processor, Dunbia, across many of its sites, taking on a more senior technical and developmental role. Her focus was on establishing supply chains back to farm level to produce high-quality products.

In 2008, Gorst was appointed by Co-op as a technical manager, signalling the start of her career within retail.

Almost 10 years on, as Head of Agriculture, she leads a dedicated team of food and farming specialists. They work across dairy, beef, lamb, poultry, eggs, fish and horticulture, to ensure the retailer’s long-standing commitment to supporting agriculture is upheld.

Gorst’s role is multi-faceted, but is centred around defining and delivering Co-op’s long-term food and farming strategy. Her focus is on working to safeguard the farm-to-fork journey, making sure that it follows Co-op’s best-practice guidelines.

She works to ensure that it has been subject to rigorous animal welfare and environmental regulations, so that customers can buy with confidence.

Gorst’s passion for the promotion of sustainable supply chains has seen the agricultural team establish eight Co-op farming groups in the past three years, which together work with over 2,000 farmers across the UK.

They aim to create more collaborative, long-term relationships between Co-op, its farmers, and other industry stakeholders.

She is the gatekeeper to a wide number of essential sector relationships which ensure the Co-op’s sourcing credentials, including welfare standards and agri-marketing initiatives, are delivered to a high standard.

Gorst also leads on a range of consumer-facing initiatives including: Co-op’s sponsorship of LEAF Open Farm Sunday; its presence at a wide range of high-profile agricultural shows; and its Farming Pioneers programme which nurtures young farming talent from across the UK.

Another element of her role sees her lead on lobbying and influencing external opinion formers, along with trade and industry bodies. This ensures Co-op, as a retailer, is in line with emerging agricultural developments, alongside the delivery of its own R&D programmes.

Unsurprisingly, Gorst married into a farming family. She now enjoys living in a rural area of north west England, with her husband and children.

Living in a farming community, she said, enables her to understand the challenges facing the agricultural industry today. This can have a positive impact on elements of her role as Head of Agriculture at Co-op.

An advocate of rural life, she said she enjoys promoting the many benefits that living on a farm can bring.