The King and Queen of Hopping Seeds
Albuquerque business the largest exporter of Mexican jumping beans in the world
Joseph Hindi was originally in the cloth bag-making business, but it wasn't going very well. "Some nuns in Texas were blowing us out of the water," he laughs. The nuns were able to make shopping bags a lot cheaper. So Hindi thought he needed a gimmick, something to help move his products. Someone suggested he throw in a few Mexican jumping beans.
The seed was planted. That suggestion led to what would become a decade of Mexican jumping bean sales to countries all over the world (South Africa, Singapore, Spain) and a thriving business. As the biggest exporter of jumping beans around, Joseph and his wife Soledad have been crowned the king and queen of the strange little pods.
It all happens in a small, cheerfully painted orange and blue house across from the old post office on Mountain. Inside, the dull roar of hundreds of jumping beans popping in their seed-pods combines with an unfamiliar, woodsy smell. At picnic tables covered in plastic tablecloths, workers dig through buckets of beans, assigning three jumpers per small plastic box.
When Soledad turns off the lights, a hush descends as all the beans lay still in their pods. Light and heat make them jump. Motion and sound make them stop. You could keep a jumping bean for more than a year if you kept it in a cool, dark space. Soledad did the light trick for "The Today Show" when the production came to Albuquerque to interview the couple a few months ago. Within a half hour of the show's airing, the Hindis got a call from a producer with "The Tonight Show," who's interested in the quirky nostalgia of Mexican jumping beans. Though nothing’s been finalized, Joseph and Soledad, both native New Mexicans, are thrilled.
But the jumping bean business isn't necessarily a big cash boon to their family; the Hindis also own a sheep ranch in Central New Mexico. "A lot of times we debate whether we're going to continue with the beans, and we always do," says Joseph. "The people in Mexico—it's very gratifying to be able to help people down there in the villages where they collect these jumping beans." A good crop of jumping beans leads to a huge income-producing period for the gatherers, who make what they need to work the rest of the year off the strange popping pods. Soledad told the Alibi everything it ever wanted to know about Mexican jumping beans.
Where is your supplier?
They only grow in the mountains of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico. We went down there and found a couple people that gather the beans first. Now what they do is organize hundreds of people during picking season, because picking season is only really about two to three weeks.
What exactly is the bean?
Well, it's originally a tripod. It's a seed-pod that comes in three little pieces that are together.
What's it a seed for?
It's a tree called the Yerba de la Flecha, which means "the weed of the arrow" or the Sebastiana tree. The shrub itself, the reason they called it Yerba de la Flecha, shrub of the arrow, is that it has this milky, gooey sap that comes out of the shrub that is mildly poisonous, so they would coat arrows with the stuff. The beans are not at all toxic. The only thing that would happen is you would digest a little protein if you swallowed one.
How does it work?
It's similar to an apple flower. What happens is a moth in the spring lays its egg on the flower of the shrub, and then that flower turns into the seed-pod, the tripod. When the spring rains come, it's about mature, and then 21 days after that, it's totally mature, this pod, and it splits open. When it splits open, it goes to the ground. Those that have a little larva inside of it will jump. Those that do not have a larva have the seed from the tree.
Those that have a larva go in and eat the seed. That's what they live on. That's where the jumping motion comes from. They're eating the seed.
And they ... hatch?
After they're through eating the seed, the second thing that causes the jumping motion is they spin a cocoon--’cause they're going to go through metamorphosis in this little pod and start the whole thing over again.
Your workers who are putting together these boxes of three beans, are they sorting them? Are they picking out the jumpers?
Pretty much we've already checked them out. They sort them for us in Mexico (she shakes a fistful of beans near her ear). This is a good bunch. When you don't hear anything rattle, those are good jumpers. If you hear a rattle, it's going to be one of the seeds.
Is that how they sort them in Mexico, too, they listen?
In Mexico, when they first get them in large quantities, they have these tables at a slight slant. They put all the beans at the top and the ones that are jumping will jump all the way to the bottom. And those that aren't jumping will just kind of stay caught. They have a little net. They pull those out.
Did you have jumping beans when you were kids?
I did. I'm from here, so we used to always go to Old Town and buy them.
Did any of yours ever turn to moths at your house?
I don't remember, but they probably did. I was not the best with my toys so I probably just lost them along the way. We have kids all the time, and grownups, that will write us waiting for them to hatch and then will tell us when they hatch, "What do I do with them?" and "What do I feed them?" They give them names.
What do you feed them?
Nothing. All they do, their only purpose really, is to go back and lay an egg. They really don't even eat. They reproduce and lay a fertile egg in the shrub. Then they die like most moths die between three to seven days.
Does it have any kind of ecological effect on that area to harvest all the beans?
No. Actually, what happens is the shrub is almost like a weed. The jumping beans, the little larva, are a way of controlling that overgrowth. Because we're harvesting the ones that jump, it doesn't make any difference. The ones that don't jump, they throw back. They don't pick up anything on the ground that isn't jumping. You can see it pretty clearly. The mountains are so rough up there, we can't get to a really good portion of them, anyway.
Do you know how many you've shipped?
We sell about 2 1/2 to 3 million in loose beans every year.