Frozen in time: Drew and Beth Arey start a freeze drying business

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 12, 2009

By Katie Scarvey
Drew Arey likes to take on new ventures. He’s done real estate development, owned and managed rental properties, done landscaping and irrigation systems, and owned and operated Catawba Sporting Clays and Hunting Preserve.
Drew is brilliant with coming up with new ideas and making them fly, says his wife, Beth Arey.
His latest entrepreneurial brainstorm led to the purchase of a huge machine that is visually reminiscent of an MRI machine. Instead of imaging, though, the machine is used for freeze drying.
In freeze drying, items are exposed to very low temperatures while a vacuum process extracts all the moisture from them, preserving them ó if not for posterity, then for a very, very long time.
So what would people want to preserve?
Well, wedding flowers, for one thing.
But Drew wasn’t thinking flowers initially when he was looking into buying a freeze drier.
He was thinking turkey heads.
One of his friends did taxidermy work, and he and Drew began throwing around the idea of using a freeze drier to preserve turkey heads to use in taxidermy displays. After doing some research, Drew realized that there were other applications for a freeze drier ó like preserving flowers.
He also realized that no one else in the area was doing anything similar.
So Drew and Beth made the investment in the machine. Brand-new freeze driers can cost $60,000, but the Areys went the more economical route, buying a used one and reconditioning it.
Although a turkey head or two might make its way into the Areys’ freeze dryer, Drew and Beth have decided to concentrate their business ó Arey and Arey Classic Preservations ó on flowers.
They can take a bouquet from a wedding (or anniversary, graduation, prom, pageant or funeral) and preserve it, using their freeze drying machine to dry the flowers, which will keep their natural shape and color, for the most part.
Drew and Beth aren’t quite sure how long the preserved flowers will last, since the process has only been applied to flowers in the last 20 years or so.
They believe that in a shadow box, sealed to keep out moisture, arrangements will last for 70-80 years.
Freeze drying became popular during World War II when the process was used to make “meals ready to eat” ó MREs. The freeze dried food was portable and could be easily reconstituted by adding water. Although the Areys are experimenting with freeze drying some fruit for a Boy Scout troop, they don’t have big plans to use their machine for food.
The process of freeze drying flowers is fairly involved. You can’t simply take a bouquet and toss it into the machine. There is a painstaking preparation process that the flowers must undergo so that they will look their best.
The fresher the flowers, the better, as far as preservation is concerned. The Areys suggest that flowers be dropped off with them no later than the day after the event, and they can even arrange to pick up flowers on the day of the event.
The Areys then photograph the flowers arranged as the customer desires. They photograph from all angles so that they’ll be able to recreate the arrangement once the flowers are freeze dried.
After the photos are taken, the flowers must be prepared for the drying process. Beth strips most of the foliage away, since it doesn’t freeze dry well, and snips off the bottom of the stems before rehydrating the flowers.
(In the final arrangement, the greenery may be replaced with artificial foliage.)
The flowers are then pre-treated ó either sprayed or dipped ó with a solution to set the color and open cell structure in preparation for the freeze drying process. After the solution dries, the flowers are ready to go into the machine.
(At this point, the prepared flowers could go into a regular freezer for up to a year before being freeze dried.)
The flowers then go into the machine, which has a thick plexi-glass door. Drew sets the machine initially at 20 degrees below zero, and then increases the temperature 2-3 degrees a day until the process is complete. The machine creates a vacuum, which sucks all the moisture out of the flowers.
The slower the process, the less shrinkage will occur to the flowers, Drew says.
“You could rush it along, but the flowers would draw in,” he says.
After the freeze drying process is complete, the flowers are taken from the machine and then reassembled, color enhanced if necessary, and sprayed with a plastic solution.
The flowers are then ready to be arranged.
Customers can choose from a wide variety of framing options. Shadow boxes are popular since they protect the flowers from moisture and dirt. Customers may also opt for a tabletop display. The Areys will work with customers on selecting the method of display.Shadowbox designs can include items other than flowers: photographs, eyeglasses, invitations, or whatever memento is desired.
Drew and Beth flew out to Phoenix last June for a week to learn the ins and outs of freeze drying, including specific instructions in working with flowers.
“It was so valuable to go out and see the process with them helping you,” Beth said.
They brought home several shadow boxes they assembled together while they were in Arizona.
Drew points to his.
“I got in touch with my feminine side,” he says.
And indeed, it is lovely.
Prices vary. Preservation of a single flower might run $30; bridal bouquets might run from $250-$1200.
Animals, as long as they’re not too large, can also be preserved through freeze drying ó although Beth isn’t quite as excited about the possibilities of pet preservation as Drew.
Education applicationsRowan County extension agent Darrell Blackwelder believes that freeze drying offers numerous educational applications.
People are always coming to his office wanting help identifying insects, he says, and the best way is to have examples for comparison. Some insects ó like spiders ó don’t preserve well using traditional methods, he points out.
Blackwelder envisions freeze drying things like caterpillars in order to help people identify them ó including people who have been bitten. He’d love to have a freeze dried puff caterpillar, for example, which has a powerful sting that can put people in the hospital.
Hospitals could have displays of freeze dried poisonous creatures, whether spiders or snakes, so that patients could more easily identify what bit them.
“A picture in a book just isn’t going to get it sometimes,” he says.
He believes that there are numerous potential applications for schools and colleges as well. If you’d like more information about the freeze drying services the Areys offer, call 704-637-5898.