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Experts:  Only Fraction of Zimbabwean Wheat Planted - 2004-06-01

Zimbabwe's wheat-planting season has ended, but because of delays in the processing of loans for seed and fertilizer by the government's land bank, experts say only a fraction of the acreage has been planted.

Crop forecasters say they have no idea how much wheat has been planted this year, but express doubt whether it will be more than last winter or a quarter of the country's needs.

About 90-percent of Zimbabwe's wheat crop, which needs irrigation in the country's dry winter months, was traditionally grown by white commercial farmers. Following the eviction of most of them over the last four years, the land is now in the hands of the so-called new farmers.

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers' Union, which largely represents new farmers, says many of its members did not get loans from the government's Agribank in time for planting winter wheat. The organization says the land bank has failed to process applications for loans in time.

Agribank was one of about half a dozen Zimbabwe banks that were unable to honor checks earlier this year. However, the bank says it has restructured and the government has injected enough money for it to finance production of most cereal crops in future.

Statistics published in state-controlled media report Zimbabwe harvested 220,000 tons of wheat last winter, but grain traders and importers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say the actual figure is less than half of that.

President Robert Mugabe has said Zimbabwe harvested enough wheat last winter to feed itself and will not need to depend on food donations or imports for the foreseeable future.

During the past two years, international food donations fed as many as 5.5 million people in Zimbabwe or nearly one-half of the country's population.