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Agrium chief executive officer Mike WilsonJeff McIntosh

Fertilizer-giant Agrium Inc. says it has returned to profitability in its first quarter, beating analyst expectations as crop prices soared.

The major fertilizer, chemicals and farm inputs retailer reported net earnings of US$171-million, or $1.09 per share.

That's above the estimates of $1.02 per share on average that analysts had predicted, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.

The results were also above a loss of $1-million or a penny per share a year ago.

Sales rose to $2.95-billion, also outperforming estimates of $2.5-billion, and up from $1.85-billion a year earlier.

Agrium produces the three main types of fertilizer: nitrogen, phosphate and potash. It also sells farm products at retail outlets across North America, with a growing presence in South America and Australia.

"Record high crop prices and overall strong fundamentals for agriculture and the crop input market provided the basis for Agrium's outstanding quarter, particularly in light of a slow start to the spring season," Agrium chief executive officer Mike Wilson said in a statement.

"Crop nutrient demand was strong in North America and globally, providing underlying support to crop nutrient prices."

The Calgary-based company also said Wednesday it now has all the necessary approvals to complete its sale of a large chunk of Australian grain marketer AWB Ltd. to a major U.S. agribusiness.

Agrium said its transaction with Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. has been approved by Australia's foreign investment review board, following earlier approval of the deal by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Agrium says regulatory approvals for the transaction have now been satisfied and closing is expected in two weeks.

Last summer, Agrium offered $1.1-billion to buy AWB and closed the deal in December.

Shortly thereafter, Agrium sold a large chunk of AWB to Cargill for $870-million. Agrium was mostly drawn to AWB's retail business, and decided to shed the grain trading and handling portion of the company.

"We are pleased that all the necessary approvals have now been obtained to complete this transaction," said Wilson said in a statement. "This will allow us to focus our efforts in Australia on what we do best, bringing value to our grower customers through our retail Landmark business."

Cargill is a privately held producer and seller of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services. It employs 131,000 people in 66 countries.