Chris Ely was raised on an Angus farm in New Jersey, back in the days when the Garden State was known for agriculture, not Tony Soprano. For Ely, the taste of his family's grass-fed beef was beyond compare. When he co-founded a business with Steve McDonnell in the '80s, the fledgling Applegate Farms sold chemical-free sausage products without nitrates or phosphates, because that's how Ely's family always felt meat should be sold. "At that time, there wasn't organic meat. Just meat," Ely says of the market in 1986.

Soon, a regular client of theirs, Boston-based Bread and Circus (later acquired by Whole Foods), began asking questions about Applegate's meat. How were the animals raised? What did the animals eat? Why? The questions sent Ely on farm excursions, quizzing his growers and learning some shocking truths about the commercial meat industry. Applegate Farms expanded its criteria for the meat it sold to include organic, natural and humanely raised in a time when these words were unregulated and, as far as the USDA was concerned, undefined. Applegate's reputation for selling meat "became a trust thing," Ely says.

Applegate has always been open about the sources of its products. On its website, you can click to follow the life of the bird your chicken sausage came from. Or the hog that became your bacon or lunch meat. "The entire meat business is built on trust," Ely continues, explaining how his first consumers actually knew his growers and saw them on weekends at the farmers markets. Now that Applegate has found success nationwide, fewer clients have face time with the farmers, but still trust in Applegate to keep its promises.

This is a unique attitude in a world of feedlots, factory farms and meat corporations doing anything and everything to maximize profits. We've entered a world where American meat has lost not only its soul but its flavor, as the products from stressed-out animals fed ... well, we don't quite know what they're fed ... often require even more chemicals to keep them from tasting like cardboard.

The easiest way to describe Applegate's standards, on the other hand, is to dig up your old mental images of farms, a la "Old McDonald." The company uses hands-on growers who employ homeopathic methods to fight illness and who understand that, while chickens indeed need space to hunt and peck for grain and grubs, housing them entirely outdoors invites airborne avian diseases that ravish their drug-free flocks. Using an army of quality inspectors, vets and agricultural experts, Applegate Farms makes sure to know everything about its farms and passes that information on to consumers.

As Applegate Farms grew in popularity and expanded its line (which now includes everything from beef jerky to deli meats to cocktail wieners), it began to rely on farmers farther and farther from its New Jersey headquarters. Some might view its eventual reliance on foreign cattle and hog farms as a downside, but Ely says product quality must come first for Applegate Farms. "We advocate 100 percent grass-fed when it comes to cattle," he says, "and there are certain climate conditions you need to really do it right." Applegate Farms relies on many Australian cattle farms where the animals have grass year round. The meat is cheaper for the customer in the end and has a fuller flavor, because American beef would need expensive hay supplements in the winter. "Those farmers in Queensland don't even think of themselves as raising organically or anything special," Ely says. "They just farm the way they've been doing it forever."

The results are pretty tasty. Cultural tastemakers such as Rachel Ray to Oprah have vouched for Applegate, agreeing its meat just seems to taste better. You might pay a bit more for Applegate Farms products (the hot dogs, for example, are around $6 for a pack of eight) but the attention its growers give to humane and eco-friendly agriculture shines through in the flavor of the meat. To taste Applegate bacon is to have hope that Americans might remember what we had before we turned to factory farms: Food that is good. Period.  

(MNN homepage illustration incorporates photo by mnmlbeats/Flickr)