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BISMARCK, N.D. - A North American Free Trade Agreement panel has rejected a North Dakota Wheat Commission appeal over Canadian spring wheat imports, clearing the way for the U.S. government to lift tariffs on grain from north of the border.

The Canadian Wheat Board described the decision this week as the last hurdle to Canadian grain freely crossing the border again.

"We are pleased to be able to once again freely market prairie farmers' high-quality wheat to our valuable American customers," said Ward Weisensel, the wheat board's chief operating officer.

Wheat Commission marketing director Jim Peterson said the group expects tariffs to be lifted early next year, though he said it is hard to predict how much Canadian grain will flow south.

"I think the Canadian Wheat Board is painted in a different light than it was three, four years ago," he said.

The ruling was the latest in several decisions by the NAFTA panel and the International Trade Commission since the Wheat Commission filed a trade complaint against Canada in September 2002 that eventually led to tariffs on spring wheat.

The ITC concluded in October that U.S. farmers are not harmed by Canadian wheat sales in America. The Wheat Commission, which disputes that, appealed but lost.

The Canadian Wheat Board contends there is nothing wrong with its marketing practices.

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