Zimbabwe's government and 15 major banks are putting together a financing package to help the country's new black farmers plant their first crops. But the effort may already be too late for this season's harvest.

The summer rains have come early in Zimbabwe, but few crops have yet been planted because most of the country's new black farmers can not afford to buy seeds, fertilizer, equipment and fuel to cultivate their fields. Another year of bad harvests could be catastrophic in a country where roughly half the population is already at risk of starvation.

The government and the banks are putting together the equivalent of a $50 million loan for tens of thousands of new black farmers who have moved onto formerly white-owned land. The idea is to finance the purchase of supplies.

But economists said Wednesday it will take a few weeks for the new farmers to actually get the money and begin to make their purchases. They will have to pay 35 percent interest on the loans, but that is not high by local standards.

Still, experts say the financing may not help much. The prime planting season has passed, and the situation is made worse by the early rains. In addition, there is a shortage of seed, fertilizer and fuel for the few farmers who have tractors.

On a tour last week of Zimbabwe's most productive agricultural province, Mashonaland West, there was no evidence of extensive agriculture. Most white commercial farmers, who produced 40 percent of foreign currency earnings, have gone.

They have been replaced by two groups of new land owners, subsistence farmers, known as settlers, and new black commercial farmers.

Settlers are manually planting small pieces of land, likely only enough to feed their own families.

The black commercial farmers have not yet prepared the land for this season and the huge rich fields which have consistently produced food for the nation, are fallow.

Few of the new farmers have any farming experience, and most are businessmen who live in the towns.

Commercial agriculture has been severely disrupted in Zimbabwe for nearly three years now, since President Robert Mugabe ordered his supporters to take over white owned land.

According to agriculture minister Joseph Made, that process is now complete. He has said repeatedly that the land reform program will dramatically increase agricultural production. But people in the prime production area doubt that will happen, at least this year.