Sumner-based Troutlodge is a homegrown business that celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. Each year we produce nearly 500 million live trout eggs and sell them in more than 60 countries including Russia, Peru, Turkey and China.
We are blessed with 50 hard-working employees who earn a family living wage and benefits. We are the leader in worldwide trout egg production and genetics. The eggs are received by our customers, hatched and reared in freshwater hatcheries. The resulting trout are ultimately harvested to become healthy and wholesome seafood meals.
Between 2009 and 2013, Iran was an important market for our product. The eggs were legally exported there under an agricultural exemption to U.S. economic sanctions. Between 2013 and 2015, however, our sales to Iran dried up as a result of the increasing difficulty in being paid from Iranian customers (Western banks were forbidden from receiving or reluctant to receive payment from Iranian banks), along with a disease outbreak in the Iranian trout industry.
By the beginning of 2016, the fish health issues in Iran improved. It also became possible again to be paid from Iranian customers in a legal manner — in part due to the findings that Iran has lived up to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear accord signed by President Obama.
Consequently, Troutlodge again took steps to become active in the trout egg market in Iran. (Boeing is another Northwest company that has benefited by signing a multi-billion dollar deal to sell commercial aircraft in Iran.)
With the encouragement of many individuals, we attended the World Aquaculture Society meetings held in Iran in December. We were pleasantly surprised with all aspects of our visit. Our passage through Iranian customs was simple and pleasant.
This, in itself, is telling. Iran is eager to reestablish business relations with U.S. companies. Moreover, wherever we traveled in Tehran or throughout other areas of the country, we were warmly welcomed by every Iranian we met.
It soon became apparent that the vast majority of Iranians have great and genuine affection for Americans. When superficial differences are set aside, it is clear that our Iranian counterparts have similar values and dreams, such as working toward a better life for their families and employees.
Strong business ties and robust interaction between American and Iranian citizens who have so much in common can go a long way toward healing differences, promoting understanding and creating a safe environment for all.
However, the question remains whether the U.S. can refrain from, proverbially, shooting itself in the foot. Several steps must be taken to reengage Iran politically, diplomatically and from a business perspective.
First, our politicians must refrain from making xenophobic statements about Iran in general and Muslims in particular. They must refrain from assuming that all Muslims are dangerous. Donald Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. is a case in point. This statement and position reflects ignorance of the worst kind and, unfortunately for us, was made about the same day we entered Iran.
It was embarrassing to us that someone running for president would make such a statement. Even so, we were treated graciously by every Iranian we met.
Second, our banking system must change so that businesses can enter into contracts or joint ventures with Iranians, with the confidence that funds can be easily transferred. It is imperative that banking rules and norms are liberalized, allowing and facilitating financial transfers when it is otherwise legal to do so.
Finally, we must recognize that economic sanctions, unless universally applied by like-minded countries in Europe, will only serve to punish U.S. companies.
We are not naive. The U.S. and Iran still have serious geopolitical differences. Much can go awry by the actions of military and political leaders on either side. But our message is that there is tremendous goodwill at the individual and business level which, if allowed to develop, could form the basis of a more positive and secure relationship between our countries and peoples.
John Dentler is the vice president of sales, marketing and government affairs for Troutlodge. Steve Brown is the CEO.