Getting and maintaining vitality in rural America is necessary to keep the country's economic picture in good shape, according to Maureen A. Kennedy, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service.

If rural areas are in the middle of bad economic times, the possible side effect is less education, Kennedy said, adding that letting rural areas slide cannot be tolerated.She was in town to speak to a national meeting of county supervisors and clerks in the Red Lion Ho-tel.

Defining rural areas as places with a population of less than 10,000, Kennedy said more people are discovering rural areas because of the lifestyle and the fact that more businesses are moving there to provide jobs. She said companies can function in rural areas because of modern communications.

Kennedy said the Rural Housing Service was created in October 1994 and includes programs previously administered by the Farmers Home Administration and the Rural Development Administration.

She said programs administered by the agency are like a four-legged stool: money for infrastructure, grants and loan guarantees for affordable housing, loans to businesses that create job opportunities and leadership that helps communities organize to boost their economic well-being.

Nationally, the Rural Housing Service administers a housing budget of $3.9 billion that helps more than 65,000 very low and low-to-moderate-income rural families get their own houses.

The community facilities program has an annual loan authority of $283 million, which assists local communities finance construction or improvement of fire stations, libraries, hospitals, health clinics, community buildings or industrial parks.

Kennedy said the federal government cannot help rural areas alone; it takes plenty of assistance from the private sector.

Also attending the meeting was Randy Weber, associate administrator of the Farm Service Agency, the entity that administers the federal farm program formerly operated by the Farmers Home Administration.

Based on the Farm Act of 1996, his job is to educate American farms they have only until July 12 to sign up for agricultural market transition payments. His pitch is to raisers of wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, oats, upland cotton and rice who will receive payments for the next seven years.

Weber stressed that after July 12 there won't be another chance to sign up for the payments that are an attempt to get away from farm subsidies. He said farmers representing 84 percent of the possible acreage in Utah already have signed and he expects nearly 100 percent participation by the deadline.

Weber said the agency also has a conservation reserve program that provides payments to farmers for forgoing crops to fight erosion by planting the area with grass.