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Former tech entrepreneur tries her hand at lemon orchards and children’s books

By Alexandra Wexler | 2 Nov 2010

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Karen Morss started a tech company and owned a flight school. Today, her passions include writing children's books and growing Meyer lemons, shown here. (Photo: Alexandra Wexler)

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Most farmers don’t name their fruit trees, but Karen Morss is far from your typical farmer.

The small, feisty Philadelphia native and self-proclaimed “Orchardess” is a woman with many passions. She pilots airplanes, pens children’s books and is inventing an iPad application. Yet few things match her devotion to the Meyer lemon. ”I absolutely adore Meyer lemons,” she explained. “I use them in absolutely everything. There is literally nothing I don’t put Meyer lemons in.”

This cross between a mandarin orange and a true lemon has become a cash crop and a way of life for Morss, owner-operator of Lemon Ladies Orchard in San Mateo County.  Her 40-tree venture produces about 6,000 pounds of lemons a year, which she sells to local markets and bakeries and on a website she created.

Instead of drawing up a chart and referring to her trees by number, Morss named each after a woman who has inspired her, such as Amelia Earhart and astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. She got the initial idea to grow Meyer lemons from another woman — Martha Stewart.

“Martha Stewart adores Meyer lemons,” Morss said. “In the early part of the 2000s, every time she was talking about making a recipe, she was talking about Meyer lemon, Meyer lemon, which of course I loved, but nobody sold them anyplace.”

To outsiders, her actions may seem a bit rash or eccentric, but for anyone who knows Morss, they are very much in character.  Never having graduated from college, Morss talked her way into a job as a saleswoman at Savin Business Machines in 1973. She became the company’s top salesperson within a year.

She went on to own her own computer software company and then bought a flight school, before opening Lemon Ladies Orchard on the side of an emerald hill in Redwood City. “I really do believe you can chart your own course in life,” she said.  “I believe that if you can dream it you can do it.  My basic philosophy is that 99 out of a 100 people that you meet only have the authority to say, ‘no.’ You just have to find the one who can say, ‘yes.’”

In 1983, Morss switched from sales to product development and helped to develop the first tablet computer at a company called Convergent Technologies.  The project, deemed the Work Slate, ended up not panning out, though, so Morss broke off and began her own software company — Foresite — which was highly successful.

“Ultimately I always knew that I wanted to start my own company, and I did,” Morss said.

Foresite produced and sold software that allowed companies to fill in forms on a computer and save them electronically, or print them on blank paper, instead of using a typewriter to fill in each pre-printed form individually.

“We took 4,000 of the Coast Guard’s forms and converted them from paper to digital,” Morss said.  “They said the ships actually went faster because they didn’t have to carry all of that paper!”

The software was also popular with major international banks and other large companies, Morss added.

“We had just the best 10 years you could possibly imagine,” she said.  “But then with the advent of the PC, it became clear that these dedicated workstations that used our software were going away.”

So Morss decided to get out of the computer software business and pursue a lifelong dream of getting her pilot’s license. “When I was 8-years-old, my father got his pilot’s license, and he took me up, and when I first saw the world from 2,000 feet it changed my perspective on everything,” she explained. “I don’t know why, but just realizing the world looked like that at 8-years-old was a revelation.  I was used to two dimensions, and to see a third just blew me away.”

When she went to the small San Carlos airport three miles from her home to inquire about flying lessons, she knew exactly what she wanted — a woman instructor and a low-wing airplane.  Luckily, they had both. However, the flight school “was a dump,” she said. “There were no computers, all the furniture looked like it had been picked up from a goodwill store, and it smelt like burnt coffee.”

The school was also using a 1971 airplane with no GPS to teach students how to fly in 1995, she said, but her desire to fly was so strong that she overlooked the shortcomings.

Then one day, flipping through a flight magazine, she found an ad for “this gorgeous airplane” and decided to go to the factory in Ontario, Canada,  with her father to check it out. The airplane, called a Katana, was made specifically for flight training, and Morss fell in love with it.

“It was all composite and had a joystick, which is much more fun to fly with than a yoke,” she said.  “It looked like a Miata with wings — just the cutest little thing you ever saw in your life.”

The company that produced the Katana told Morss that if she bought two they would give her a $15,000 discount off each plane and make her their dealer for the West Coast.  She was sold.

When she got back to the flight school in San Carlos and insisted that the place be cleaned up to better attract the type of Silicon Valley clientele that would want to learn in the Katanas, the then-owner threw up his hands. “I don’t have the energy to put up with you or your new airplanes,” Morss recalled the former owner saying. ”Here’s what I propose, I’m going to sell you the school.”

The man asked for‘$40,000. “I said, ‘$10,000,’ and he said, ‘Done.’”

The first thing Morss did was gut the place.  The second was get her pilot’s license, which she was awarded the day after the school’s grand opening.

During that time, she met her husband, Dave, who had given Morss her pilot’s license check-ride.  To this day, Dave is a test pilot who also races airplanes in competition.

“We had a lot of fun with the flight school,” Morss said.  “But I said I would only do it for five years.  It’s not the kind of thing you make money at.  It’s really a labor of love.”

Five years to the day, Morss sold the flight school and considered herself retired.

“Since I started so early, I always thought how cool it would be to not have to work anymore once you hit 50,” she explained.  “I retired from the flight school at 48, so I felt like I accomplished that goal.”

Since then, Morss has taken on many smaller ventures, including the Lemon Ladies. In 2004, Morss decided to turn her backyard into an orchard, and purchased and planted 40 trees.  However, she let the trees grow and mature for three years, so she didn’t get her first crop until 2007.

“Our first year we harvested 6,000 pounds.  Now I had no idea how many lemons we were going to have, so this was a complete new experience,” Morss said.  “Thank god I got in with Google.  I went down there (to the company headquarters in Mountain View) with a big bag of lemons and a letter of introduction … and Google ordered 350 pounds a week every week for the whole season.  It was fabulous.”

Then, when Google cut back on its local produce purchases due to the economic downturn in 2008, Morss had to get innovative to find buyers for her second crop.

“That was the year I really focused on building my Internet business — the website — and that has turned out to be wonderful,” she said.  “I’ve got about 500 customers all over the country.  I have this little 80-year-old lady in Maine, and I have one woman in Alaska who orders them all season long.  I mean, all over the whole country.  It’s just so cool.”

Turning to the Internet has become a trend among small farmers in California over the past few years, according to Penny Leff, the Agritourism Coordinator for the Small Farm Program at the University of California, Davis.

“One of the biggest challenges for small farmers is probably finding and maintaining good markets that will pay the price premium that they need,” Leff explained.  “They can’t sell wholesale competitively.  They have to develop direct marketing and differentiate themselves.”

This door-to-door delivery service is essential for people who want to eat organic, but who are unable to find that type of produce in their area.  And although organic Meyer lemons run about $4 or $5 a pound (approximately $1 a lemon), Morss wouldn’t consider growing her lemons any other way.

“They’re hugely popular,” said Tim Gast, one of the produce department managers of Robert’s Market in Woodside, of Morss’ lemons.  “Just the fact that they’re local, and the quality is amazing.  They’re the nicest Meyer lemons I’ve ever seen.”

These days, Morss has another project that’s occupying the majority of creative time and attention, though — a children’s Christmas book she wrote, titled, “Flying Poodles: A Christmas Story.”

“For the past 25 years I’ve had standard poodles, and they’re just the most wonderful dogs in the whole world,” Morss explained.  “And when I had the flight school, my poodle Sophie loved to fly.  I called her my flying poodle.”

Morss and her poodle, Lucy, show off her children's book, "Flying Poodles - A Christmas Story." (Photo: Alexandra Wexler)

So when Morss heard about a team of poodles that had run the Iditarod — a brutal 1250-mile race through Alaska the middle of winter — the idea for a story was planted in her mind.

“One day a friend called me and asked me to go to Carmel with her for a couple of days, so I did, and I guess because I had no technology with me, I sat down with a pen and paper, and I wrote a poem,” Morss said.  “I based it on, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ except in my story it was ‘Two nights before Christmas,’ and Mrs. Claus goes out to take the reindeer a last-minute snack, and finds that they all have the flu.”

The rest of the story chronicles the tale of how a team of nearby poodles ends up saving Christmas.

“I wanted the story to talk about adventure and not being afraid; to be brave when you have to sometimes, and to always help a friend,” Morss said.

Although it took her a long time to find the right illustrator for her book, Morss eventually discovered children’s book illustrator Ginger Nielson, who then helped her find a printer for their project.

When 34 boxes full of her books arrived on a giant wooden pallet from all the way from South Korea, “Dave looked at me, and he said, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing!’” Morss recalled.  “I’m doing this all on my own.  I’m self-publishing it.  And I think it could potentially be a new Christmas classic.”

In addition to her 1,000 limited edition signed printed copies, Morss has had a book publishing iPad app made, through which she can sell her book on iTunes.  People who purchase the app can read the book to their children directly from their iPads, or even iPhone, complete with the colored illustrations and optional musical accompaniment.

“We just came out in the iTunes store last week, and this week we had a couple of sales in China and Mexico, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic,” Morss said.

A portion of all the proceeds from the iPhone and iPad apps, as well as the book, will go to Smile Train, a charity Morss supports for children with cleft palettes.

“Each of these projects is something where I see a market need that nobody else is filling,” Morss added.  “I’ve been able to manage, and I’m holding my own.  Each of my little products has given me so much pleasure.”

Next up on the do to list is the screenplay for a “Flying Poodles” movie, as well as a book sequel, which Morss has already outlined.

“Honestly if that’s what I’m remembered for, the ‘Flying Poodles,’ I will be very happy,” she said.

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