The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping small businesses in rural Arizona with loans and grants to encourage economic development in areas where it has sometimes been overlooked in the past.

That mission led Lillian Salerno, the head of Rural Business Cooperative Services in the Department of Agriculture, on a visit to Southern Arizona last week.

The government defines rural as communities of less than 50,000 people, and Salerno said there are more than 50 million people in the United States who live in communities of that size.

"We have grants and loan opportunities that help communities that are less than 50,000 people build those communities," Salerno said.

One example is Nogales, Ariz., she said.

"Nogales has all this opportunity for growth and we want to see what we can do," for businesses and community development organizations, she said.

Arizona has been designated as a Strike Force state, meaning it needs help with economic development because it may have been overlooked in previous federal economic efforts, she said.

While in Arizona, Salerno met with businesses in Nogales to talk about their needs.

"We also visited Amado Community food bank and a health center in Amado where rural development gave grants for construction on a refrigeration unit at the food bank," she said.

The agency also provides grants and matching funds for businesses to install solar power or renewable energy to help save on energy costs, which can be costly in rural areas, she said.