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The high water mark for Montana's wheat crop has always been a rarely attainable $1 billion — until now.

Analysts have pegged the value of Montana's 2010 wheat crop at $1.43 billion, the result of an extremely large harvest and prices driven upward by crop-killer weather elsewhere in the world.

To put the latest value in perspective, in 137 years of record keeping, the state had achieved just two $1 billion harvests before 2010. Twice, the state has marked harvests topping $900 million. In 2002, Montana's entire wheat crop was valued at $449 million.

The latest figures by the National Agricultural Statistics Service were issued last week. The report indicated year-over-year increases for most crops, with gains mostly measured in the millions.

Much of farmers' good fortunes are because futures prices for wheat spiked just over seven months ago and stuck, said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

"I think everyone is surprised that these high prices have held as long as they have," Raska said, "but that's the nature of the futures market."

The state produced 215.3 million bushels of wheat, a little lower in average quality than the 2008 crop that hit $1 billion, but also the largest crop on record.

At Pompey's Pillar on Tuesday, the line of the semitrailers heavy with grain trailed down the 300-yard driveway of the United Harvest elevator and onto the state highway.

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With prices as strong as they've been since 2008, truck traffic has doubled at the elevator, which is taking in 100,000 bushels of grain daily, said Brandy Bryer, assistant manager. Construction has started on two, 500,000-bushel steel elevators to boost capacity.

The cash price for the best quality wheat in the region was $11.39 a bushel Tuesday, even as prices fell sharply in response to turmoil in Libya.

Off the farm, it will take some time to determine what impact the crop will have on the rest of the state's economy and the state budget.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer and others have pointed to strong farm profits as helping to lead the state out of recession.

But farm money doesn't necessarily take the direct route to town. Rather, it funnels through seed companies, tractor dealerships and ranch supplies as farmers take care of long postponed purchases and maintenance from years when wheat wasn't worth much.

Terry Johnson, a legislative fiscal analyst, said Monday that significant taxes tied to last year's crop might not reach the state until 2012, after the money has made its way to businesses that pay more in income taxes than farmers.

"Obviously, there's an impact from farm growth, but if you look at the tax returns filed by the agriculture community, they really don't pay a lot of income taxes," Johnson said. "But, where it does show up are the residual type industries, the seed companies and implement industries, those kinds of things."

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Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288

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