Steve Henderson's small dealership amid the grasslands of Nebraska should be struggling. Alexander Motors Inc. sits in Superior as the only Chevrolet outlet within 200 square miles in south-central Nebraska. The area is so lightly populated that today it meets the 19th century definition of a frontier territory: an area with six or fewer people per square mile.
From Henderson's south-facing showroom window, a visitor can see the rolling hills of Kansas, a mile down the road. Every direction here points to an ebbing population.
Yet Henderson, who also handles Buick and Pontiac, operates in a pocket of prosperity. Commodity farm prices were so high last year that a local farmer, after being paid a whopping $14.70 a bushel for his soybean crop, didn't even ask the price of a Buick Lucerne he bought, Henderson says.
America's hinterlands face outsized economic pressures. Besides the credit crunch and nationwide recession, dealers in rural Midwestern areas confront a declining population. Nonetheless, several rural dealers say they are better off now than they were three years ago, when Automotive News profiled their woes.
At the time, their customers were buffeted by drought and decline. Not so today. Last year was a bountiful one for dealers in farm communities. "Commodities prices hit record highs in most markets — corn, wheat, soybeans — and almost any commodity you can think of," says Fred Seamon, an analyst with CME Group, a Chicago futures and options trading house.
Prices have fallen off those highs of last summer, he says. "But they remain above historical norms."