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The Associated Press

GREAT FALLS (AP) — Federal crop insurance regulators are bracing for a record year of insurance payouts in Montana as fears of another bad drought year are realized.

Doug Hagel, regional director of the Risk Management Agency in Billings, said the agency paid out $7 million as of the end of May, and he expects that to climb above the $41 million paid out last year, the largest sum since 1992.

“I would say we are probably quite a bit over last year at this time,” said Hagel, whose agency oversees the nation’s federal crop insurance programs. “It is so much drier, a lot of the winter wheat is a loss.”

Independent insurance agents like Russ Seubert in Shelby and Tom Healy of Havre agree 2001 could go down as a record crop-loss year.

They already are writing claims for spring wheat that is stunted from a lack of moisture.

“I don’t think there is going to be a harvest, or at least not much of one,” said Seubert, owner of Seubert Insurance Agency. “If you go into the heart of Toole County, it’s a desertscape.”

“We have lots of claims and lots more to come,” added Healy, who insures crops in Hill, western Blaine and Chouteau counties. “I think with spring wheat it’s almost too late.”

Winter wheat crops in Liberty, Toole, Hill and the Golden Triangle area are hardest hit, said Bob Nelson, branch manager for North Central Crop Insurance in Great Falls, which writes policies throughout Montana.

“Our adjusters are very busy,” he said. “Probably eight out of 10 policies will have some type of loss this year.”

Kurt Kammerzell, a Chester-area farmer, is among those to collect on crop insurance policies already.

His entire winter and spring wheat crop was lost to drought and cutworms.

“It’s much more rewarding to harvest a good crop,” Kammerzell said. “The toughest thing about a drought is you are here every day and looking at nothing growing.”

Repeated years of drought and low commodity prices have many farmers seeking additional financial aid from the federal Farm Service Agency as well.

Considered the lender of last resort for farmers and ranchers, the agency offers guaranteed loans and direct low-interest loans.

Mike Zook, FSA county executive in Havre, said requests for aid are up substantially from a year ago.

“I would say we are getting four times as many inquiries as we had a year ago,” Zook said. “We’ve done what we can to cushion that fall, but there is no way we can save everyone. It’s heartbreaking.”

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