Back in late April, when the organization Sustainable Berea staged its first Rain Barrel Festival, central Kentucky was enjoying a normal, rainy spring.

The historic drought of the previous summer seemed a distant memory.

Those who purchased the artfully painted rain barrels created for the festival may have expected them to function mainly as novel lawn decorations. However, the dry months of August, September and October have made the modestly priced barrels look like good investments.

According to the National Weather Service Web site, rainfall in central Kentucky from June 1 to Oct. 30 was 6.42 inches below normal, even after 0.42 inch of rain was recorded Friday.

“I just love my rain barrels,” Cheyenne Olson said Friday, as a light rain fell across Madison County.

“We were almost down to our last drop, but this rain is replenishing our four barrels,” she said, walking about her lawn with an umbrella.

Olson and her husband Richard have used rain-barrel water to irrigate the edible plants they have grown in raised beds around their home this summer and fall.

They have harvested asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions and herbs along with strawberries and blueberries for their personal use and to share with friends.

“It’s been wonderful to give my plants only water from the sky and no chlorinated city water,” she said. “It’s also great to know we didn’t place an extra strain on the resources that others need.”

The Olsons’ goal is to replace their ornamental plants with an “edible yard.”

Olson also has been able to share rainwater with her co-workers at Berea College.

“People in my office give me milk jugs to fill with rainwater and bring back,” she said.

A few miles from Berea on the banks of Owlsley Fork creek, partners Donna Wellman and Mark Jeantheau have a 10,000-gallon underground cistern in addition to several rain barrels.

They have 12 raised beds to grow salad greens, radishes, turnips, tomatoes and strawberries, which Wellman sells at the Berea Farmers’ Market. She also makes salsa and pesto to sell.

“We’ve been doing this vigorously now for two years,” Wellman said. “So far, it’s been mostly a hobby. I use the money I make to buy more seeds and plants to keep expanding.”

The couple moved to Berea from Maryland in 2005, when central Kentucky also was in the grip of a drought.

“We knew we wanted to grow at least a very large garden, so we put in an 8,000-gallon cistern when we built our house two years ago,” Jeantheau said. The house has a metal roof the maximize rainwater collection.

After the drought of 2007, they expanded the cistern by another 2,000 gallons. That capacity, also augmented by several rain barrels, “carried us through the dry time,” Wellman said.

“We had to use some city water during the dry times, but not much,” she said.

Jeantheau and Wellman also generate almost all their electricity with solar panels.

“We’re about net neutral over the course of a year,” Jeantheau said.

They pull power off the Bluegrass Energy grid during hot and cold weather, then put it back during temperate times.

Jeantheau said he expects more people to seriously consider issues of sustainability as the nation faces some tough economic challenges in the coming year.

Olson, who serves on the board of Sustainable Berea, said the organization has sold 513 rain barrels this year, including 70 painted ones auctioned off at the festival.

“We sell them for only $6 above our costs,” she said, $70 to non-members and $60 to members.

Membership is $25.

“People have come from as far away as western Kentucky and Ohio to get rain barrels,” she said.

Rain barrels can be purchased by calling 985-1689 or visiting the Web site: sustainableberea.org.

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@richmondregister.com or at 623-1669, Ext. 267.

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