Census figures show that living in rural America away from city clamor is not quite as attractive as it once was, but Agriculture Department experts say the countryside could beckon again when times improve.

During the 1970s it seemed to many demographers, including Calvin L. Beale of the USDA's Economic Research Service, that rural living was on a roll, that people flocking from the cities were turning the tide of decades of migration from farms and small towns.But the human tide weakened in the early 1980s as the economy faltered, farmland values plummeted and rural employment suffered. Quickly, says Beale, the "exceptional rural and small-town growth of the previous decade ended."

A study of "metro" and "non-metro" counties shows that during the years of the population turnaround, Americans once again began heading for the cities.

The federal government says a metro area is one having a city of at least 50,000 as a nucleus and adjacent communities that have a high degree of economic and social integration with that city.

Beale said that in the 1980-83 period, the non-metro population increased at the rate of 0.83 percent a year, which once again trailed the metro gain of 1.1 percent annually. Moreover, there were 720 non-metro counties with population declines, half again as many as in the low levels of the 1970s.

Even so, the rural population balance looked pretty good by comparison with the 1950s and 1960s, when huge waves of people moved from farms and small towns to the cities.

And then the situation worsened.

From 1983 to 1986, despite a recovery in the national economy, the ability of rural areas to attract or retain people rapidly deteriorated, Beale said. The annual non-metro population increase dropped to 0.42 percent per year, only half as high as the 1980-83 rate, while the annual metro population increase rose slightly to 1.12 percent.

It is this science of numbers, decimals and fractions that makes the lives of demographers exciting. And shifts in where people live can translate into huge meanings for the nation as a whole as economies of small towns, counties and cities gain or lose.

Beale's analysis is in the current issue of RDP, or Rural Development Perspectives, a periodical issued three times a year by the department's Economic Research Service.