WASHINGTON, June 6, 2016 - Congress is back in session this week after an extended Memorial Day weekend holiday, but much of the political action will be happening on the west coast where the California primaries will be held Tuesday. California’s long-running drought has been both a campaign topic and subject of renewed debate on Capitol Hill.

California, along with other western states, is being hit by another heatwave and the Golden State is in its fifth year of drought, but USDA data shows that conditions are improving a bit.

The USDA’s drought monitor shows that while 84 percent of the state is suffering some level of drought, that’s down from 97 percent just three months ago.

And when it comes to areas experiencing extreme drought conditions, that’s been cut in half over the past 12 months from 46 percent of the state to just 21 percent.

But it’s not just California that’s seeing drought conditions diminish. Much of the farmland across the country is seeing improved weather and that’s good for grains and oilseeds.

“Just 2 percent of the winter wheat production area is currently in drought,” USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey said. “That’s down from 19 percent back in mid-April.”

Corn group tells farmers to speak up against RVO cut.  The EPA is now accepting public comment on its proposed renewable volume obligations for 2017 and the National Corn Growers Association is telling it members to speak out against it.

The RVOs, which fall under the Renewable Fuel Standard, call for 14.8 billion gallons of ethanol to be blended into gasoline. That’s 200 million gallons less than was originally set under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The deadline to submit comments to the EPA is July 11.

Beyond just writing to EPA to oppose the cut, NCGA is asking corn farmers to attend a June 9 hearing that EPA will hold on the issue in Kansas City, Mo.

“We are very clear to EPA about what we want,” said NCGA President Chip Bowling. “It is simple: EPA should follow the statute. For farmers and others in rural America, this new EPA proposal means low corn prices and ethanol plant and industry cutbacks. And for everyone else, it means higher gas prices and dirtier air.”

Consumers unwilling to pony up for higher farmworker pay, group told.Progressives frequently cite conditions and pay for farmworkers as an area that needs attention from policymakers and consumers. But Marland Buckner, who runs a Virginia farming operation that focuses on what he calls “regenerative agricultural practices,” had a blunt message for law students and others who attended a food policy conference on Friday at Georgetown University: The public won’t pay the food prices it would take to pay farmworkers more, he says. 

“The American people are utterly unwilling to pay the cost of food that it would take to pay the people that produce it,” said Buckner, co-founder and CEO of ForeverView Farms. “They’re just not going to pay it. They won’t. They’ll say they will, but they’re lying.” 

Buckner pressed his point by noting that he could get just 40 cents for a bushel of apples. “If I’m getting 40 cents for that box, what do you suppose the guy who is hanging off a ladder is getting?” Buckner went on, “The American people are unwilling to pay the freight, and until they are, nothing will change.”

Farm group wants more transparency for railroads. America’s farmers and the agriculture industry need a better accounting of what’s being shipped by rail and where - especially in times of massive railroad disruptions, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.

NGFA, in a 15-page letter, thanked the Surface Transportation Board for issuing a proposed rule to implement a monthly report on “rail service performance metrics,” but stressed more should be done. The group said it wants weekly reports that are highly detailed and show a breakdown of the types of agricultural commodities being transported, especially for vegetable meal and oil.

The First Lady harvests veggies. First Lady Michelle Obama, together with television cooking star Rachel Ray and students from across the country, will be harvesting vegetables in the White House Kitchen Garden today.

Michelle Obama first planted vegetables in the garden on the White House south lawn in 2009 – also with the help of students – and the work eventually led to the creation of her Let’s Move! initiative.

FDA’s Ostroff highlights focus on sodium and supplements. Cutting the amount of sodium Americans eat is an immediate priority, but the agency is also going to prioritize regulating dietary supplements, says FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff. The FDA on Thursday issued a voluntary draft guidance to help the food industry set targets for sodium reduction.

“American diets contain too much sodium, and too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, a major cause of stroke and heart disease,” Orstroff said in an FDA-produced interview that was posted to the agency’s website on Friday.
 
But the new deputy commissioner added that a new priority for his agency will be scrutinizing the dietary supplement business. The FDA recently created a separate office just to focus on the industry, he said.
 
“I think this will allow us to better work with and oversee the dietary supplements industry, which is rapidly growing and changing, and to be able to better use the regulatory tools that we already have at our disposal.”
 
USDA takes T-TIP message to Lithuania. USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse is heading to Lithuania this week where he’ll be promoting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The three-day trip (Wednesday through Friday) won’t just be about the controversial U.S.-EU trade deal, though. Scuse will also be meeting with Lithuania Agriculture Minister Virginija Baltraitienė “to discuss prospects for future collaboration” between the two countries. 
 
And there’s plenty of prospect for U.S. agricultural exports to Lithuania, which just made the Euro its national currency on Jan. 1, 2015, according to a newly released report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.  

Lithuania imports seafood, nuts, wine and other products. The country bought $4 billion worth of U.S. agricultural imports last year, most of which were seafood.