Amongst those approaching or already in retirement, there's a class of stocks that hold their weight in gold: dividend aristocrats. For those unfamiliar, it's not easy for a company to earn that moniker: It has to increase its dividend payout every year for at least 25 years.

Today, we'll be investigating one of the 50 current dividend aristocrats: Hormel Foods (NYSE:HRL). Is the company and its dividend a buy today? Read below to find out.

A sampling of the featured Hormel brands. Source: Hormel Foods 

The most important metric for dividend investors
When it comes to a company's dividend, there's no metric more important that free cash flow. This represents the amount of cash a company brings in during a year, minus what it spends on capital expenditures. It is from free cash flow that dividends are paid.

To get a better idea for what Hormel's free cash flow and dividend situation look like, let's investigate the past five years.

Hormel Foods' Free Cash Flow & Dividends, in Millions | Create Infographics

There's a lot of good news in the graph above. None of that news is better than this: Hormel's dividend is very safe, and the company should easily be able to continue increasing its payout for the foreseeable future.

Over the past five years, the company -- on average -- has used only 35% of its free cash flow to pay its dividend. Over the last 12 months, that number has ticked up to 43% -- but that's still well within the safety zone.

Some might worry about the fact that free cash flow hasn't been increasing steadily. That's a fair concern, but Hormel's free cash flow has been significantly affected by three factors: fluctuating capital expenditures, buildups of inventory, and non-cash equity that the company books from the earnings of its affiliates. None of these are serious red flags for investors.

The underlying business
Hormel owns several brands that you are no-doubt familiar with -- like Jennie-O Turkey, SPAM, and Natural Choice frozen meals. But the company itself reports in five divisions: Refrigerated Foods, Jennie-O Turkey, Grocery Products, Specialty Foods, and International & Other.

Here's how those five divisions have performed since the Great Recession began.

Hormel Revenue, by Division, in Millions | Create Infographics

As you can see, the Refrigerated section brings in the lion's share of revenue. When combined with Jennie-O Turkey, these two divisions bring in over two-thirds of the company's revenue. It will be important for these two to maintain growth outpacing inflation for the dividend to continue rising.

But management sees the real growth for the company coming from the Grocery and International divisions. These two have grown by 13% and 18%, respectively, per year since 2009. The recent acquisition of Skippy Peanut Butter is expected to be a major driver of growth for Grocery Products, and should also help the company increase sales internationally -- particularly in China -- along with accelerating sales of SPAM pork products.

For investors looking to hold Hormel shares for the long haul, these are the two operational keys to keep an eye on: steady -- if slow -- growth in Refrigerated and Jennie-O divisions, and growth of 10% or more in the Grocery and International segments.

So is it a buy?
Currently, Hormel shares are trading hands for 24 times earnings, and 30 times free cash flow. That's a hefty premium for a company that analysts see growing its bottom line by about 11% per year for the next two years. It also doesn't help that the company's current 1.5% dividend yield is below the S&P 500 average dividend yield of 1.9%.

If all you're after is a dividend yield, and you're satisfied with a 1.5% payout that you know will likely grow moving forward, Hormel might be worth buying today. However, if you're looking for better deals, check out some of the dividend payers mentioned below.