WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2017 - USDA’s 93rd annual Agricultural Outlook Forum kicks off today outside the nation’s capital. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway will keynote the morning session, and the crowd will also hear from President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to China, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. 

Agri-Pulse Communications President Sara Wyant will be moderating a discussion this morning with three agribusiness leaders from Rabobank North America, Land O’ Lakes and John Deere. They’ll be talking about conditions in the U.S. farm economy as well as issues around sustainability and innovation in the farm sector.

This will be the first time in 22 years that the USDA conference won’t be hosted by a sitting agriculture secretary. President Trump’s nominee to run USDA, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. 

The last time this happened was in 1995 after Mike Espy had stepped down as Bill Clinton’s first ag secretary. Espy’s successor, Dan Glickman, didn’t take office until that March. 

Senate Ag kicks off farm bill hearings. The Senate Agriculture Committee is convening at Kansas State University today for its first field hearing on the next farm bill. There are 18 witnesses scheduled, all from Kansas, the home state of Chairman Pat Roberts. 

Ten of the witnesses will represent farmers and ranchers. The other eight witnesses will include a bank president, an ethanol producer and representatives of a rural electric cooperative and a rural telecommunications provider.

Roberts and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, will hold a news conference before they start the hearing. A second field hearing is expected to be  held in Stabenow’s home state of Michigan.

Trade on many farmers’ minds. President Trump’s trade policy is likely to be a major subject at the Senate hearings along with the downturn in the farm economy. Senate Agriculture member Chuck Grassley says that trade issues, including Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have been coming up more often at his town hall meetings in Iowa than commodity prices. 

“What I’ve heard about most is either trade, not being in TPP, or NAFTA renegotiations, or government regulations, particularly by EPA,” Grassley told reporters yesterday. 

Stabenow: Hiring freeze threatens USDA watchdog. Stabenow worries that Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze is exacerbating a staff shortage at USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Inspector General Phyllis Fong told a House committee last week that her office has 40 vacancies and is at its lowest staffing level in nearly 40 years. 

Stabenow has sent a letter to Fong asking her to detail the impact that the vacancies are having on her ability to carry out its investigations and audits. 

Farm groups caught up in demand for EPA records. Environmentalists are serving notice that they will be challenging the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, over his relations with agriculture and other sectors. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council is demanding copies of communications between the agency and industry groups and lawmakers who were quoted in a press release praising Pruitt. 

The groups listed in the records request include the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The lawmakers listed include Pat Roberts, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman.

Want a steady income? Don’t farm. That’s one lesson you could draw from a new USDA study. It shows that farm households have to deal with a lot more volatility in their household income than most other Americans. The reason, not surprisingly, is that farm earnings tend to fluctuate a lot more than income from non-farm jobs. 

The study by USDA’s Economic Research Service found that the average year-to-year swing in income is eight times larger for farm families than it is for other U.S. households. 

Livestock operations, which often rely on marketing contracts, have more reliable incomes than crop farms. 

Large farms tend to see more volatility than smaller operations. Farms with at least $3 million in assets have a 34 percent chance of negative household incomes at least once every two years. The risk is lower for smaller farms. 

GOP leaders urged to address gray wolf. House Speaker Paul Ryan is under pressure to schedule a vote on a bill that would require that the gray wolf be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in the Midwest and Wyoming. 

Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would turn management of the wolves over to the states, reversing district court rulings that have kept the animals under federal control. 

Peterson and colleagues from the affected states say in a letter to the House speaker that it’s critical for the bill to pass as soon as possible so that farmers can protect their calves from the wolves.

General Mills loses bid to move glyphosate lawsuit. General Mills has failed to get a lawsuit over its Nature Valley granola products moved to federal court. The lawsuit alleges that the products aren’t “natural” because they allegedly contain glyphosate herbicide.

In a ruling yesterday, a federal judge ruled that the lawsuit should stay in a D.C. court because it doesn’t address safety regulations for glyphosate. 

The plaintiffs are the Organic Consumers Association, Beyond Pesticides and Moms Across America. They maintain that Nature Valley’s “100 percent natural” claim violates D.C.’s consumer protection law. 

He said it: “If you want to make America great again … you better make sure you protect your export markets.” - Warren Erdman, a vice president for the Kansas City Southern railroad, speaking at a forum held by the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City on the importance of NAFTA to farmers.

Spencer Chase, Steve Davies and Bill Tomson contributed to this report.