For years, rural retailers have been banking on the expected migration of Baby Boomers to rural communities, many of whom your dealership currently serves.

But with an economic recession that’s demoralized so many customers and dealers, you might be wondering where the Boomers are — and if they’re still coming.

After reading a couple of reports released by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) in the past year on this topic, the picture is indeed complicated. But there’s still some good news.

Let’s start with the bad news. In “Rural America at a Glance,” released last month, author Lorin Kusmin delved into a plethora of economic indicators for rural counties, including the unemployment and poverty rates. He also discusses a slowdown in net migration of Baby Boomers (between the ages of 45-63 today) to non-metro areas.

“Baby Boomers have led much of the amenity-based migration in recent years, as many had moved to high-amenity non-metro destinations as they retired or in anticipation of retirement,” the report says.

“However, the expected upswing in migration to rural areas by the aging Baby Boom cohort did not materialize in 2008-09, dampened perhaps by declining job security and loss of wealth, especially home equity wealth.”

Now here’s the good news — the longer-term view.

In “Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America,” authored by John Cromartie and Peter Nelson, the ERS predicted that if Boomers follow past migration patterns, the non-metro population, age 55-75, will increase by 30% by 2020.

There’s been a “significant increase” in the propensity of people to migrate to non-metro counties when they reach their 50s and 60s, the authors say in their August 2009 report — especially if they find good natural and urban amenities and lower housing costs.

Cromartie and Nelson say employment is still a strong influence on younger Boomers, but those effects will decrease in the coming decade. “Non-metro destinations for Boomers will likely become more dispersed across the landscape and not as concentrated around metro areas.”

So we know the Baby Boomer generation faces some challenges, but there’s the long-term view to consider. When will the Boomers start returning?

“That’s a very hard question to answer,” Cromartie, a geographer for the ERS, tells Rural Lifestyle Dealer. “Not only does it depend on when and how quickly the economy recovers, but it also has a lot to do with savings and assets, and especially housing values.

“Much of Boomer migration to rural America depended on unearned income, which mostly disappeared in the housing and stock market collapse. It’s simply impossible to know at this point the timing and strength of any kind of recovery in amenity-based Boomer migration.”

My take on this is that the Boomer migration has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped, nor will it stop. It’s a generation that has different ideas than previous ones about their dreams and desires. In the near term, it just may be harder to find these customers.

Finding them could mean getting out of the dealership and being nosy. Go to your next village or township board or planning meeting. Comb through the Census figures for your AOR.

Know a Realtor or two in town? Make them your best friends. While the economy is still waking up from a slumber, developers could be buying up land while prices are cheap and laying the groundwork for places where future customers will live. Don’t rely on your suppliers to know everything.

Doing this shouldn’t cost you anything. And you won’t feel the pain of not knowing what’s going on.