Hot off the presses, more than a year late and costing $4 million, the Agriculture Department's long-awaited rural development strategy, a small book called "Better Country," has been sent to Congress.

And all over Capitol Hill, where "Better Country" is being reviewed, Republican and Democratic champions of greater federal assistance to rural America are being scraped off House and Senate ceilings. That's how upset they are.

"Better Country," one might say, is not a hit. In a word, it says the salvation of the deprived boondocks is precisely what the Reagan administration has been prescribing all along--much less of everything.

The document was put together by a 25-member National Advisory Council on Rural Development named by Secretary John R. Block. Block said the strategy "comes directly from the people it is intended to serve."

What "Better Country" doesn't say is that the administration has thrown a budgetary meat-ax at rural development programs since 1981, with even sharper spending cuts proposed for fiscal 1984. Spending for rural housing would be cut by two-thirds next year; spending on rural water and sewer and community facilities development would be down 67 percent since 1981. Bipartisan critics in Congress call that murder in the first degree.

First to gang up on the report were Sens. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) when they were conducting an unusual public hearing earlier this month on a statewide public television hookup in Vermont. Both were critical of the policy document, which Leahy, playing off the New Federalism theme, called an example of "the new separatism."

Andrews said, "It's a travesty . . . another piece of political fluffery we get from USDA. The words in this don't even make sense." NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS

USDA officials keep up with the news through a daily in-house publication called Ag A.M., a quick, easy read that summarizes what the press is reporting, happy or not, about the department. But when Food Chemical News recently detailed allegations of travel voucher falsification by USDA news director Earl G. Cox Jr., the story didn't make it into Ag A.M.

The charges arose in 1981 when Cox was chief of information at the Labor Department. Cox spent about $12,000 on official travel, some of it including first-class air fares, during a five-month period. Labor's inspector general had "questions" about $1,238 of that amount. The Justice Department declined to prosecute because of "proof problems" it anticipated, according to Food Chemical News.

Did Cox order the story withheld from Ag A.M.?

No way, Cox said last week. "Obviously, I would not want to see the story in there," he said, "but I have nothing to hide." He said he left the print or not-print decision to lower-level officials. BROKEN HEARTS

Block got a big red valentine the other day, but it wasn't your usual hearts-and-flowers billet-doux for a Feb. 14. It was 17 pounds of petitions with 4,400 signatures, delivered by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, protesting the department's nutrition policy changes.

The petitioners are upset about proposals to eliminate an education program, reorganization of the nutrition division, refusals to meet with consumer groups and higher-priced, or canceled, publications.