If a conventional seed is to be used, documentation must be maintained as to how it was determined that there was no organic source available. That means I am required to call/email at least 3 suppliers, keep a log of conversations, etc. and present that with my certification documents. I generally go about it in another fasion but with the same end result. If I find a variety I want to grow but only see it as a conventionally grown seed, I get online and do a search for sources for the seed.
I also use my own resources. I have compiled a list of over 150 organic/op and untreated seed suppliers (more than the USDA NOP lists...) that have organic seed and I also refer to that before I begin any search online. I don't leave it at just looking at 3 sources. I WANT to use organic seed, so it is more my own ethics that make me do this research than the requirement of the USDA NOP. I try to stay away from printed catalogs (save a tree and all that) but sometimes companies having the printed page is necessary, especially if I am working on this away from home. Whenever we go anywhere for more than a couple of hours, my backpack is filled with my notebooks, a selection of seed catalogs and lots of pencils. Clothes and other items are not necessities for me. I learned to travel light a long time ago.
It is really hard to narrow down what we want to plant each year. We trial at least a couple of new entries every year and have discovered some gems that way. Also we have uncovered some real stinkers whose descriptions in the seed catalogs made them sound like they came straight from Eden. Wasting space on something like that is a no-no, so I have to present my case for each new item to The Farmer and we jointly decide to trial or not.
When we are looking at new heirlooms, I spend an amount of time looking up its history. Growing historical heirlooms is pretty cool...living history, actually. It just makes it fun for me, to eat something that may have been on the table of my ancestors in Europe and again when they came to these shores in the late 1600's. Talk about connecting with your food source!
I am particularly attracted to ethnic varieties also. This country is such a melting pot of cultures that I find it fascinating to delve into the foods that are not part of the Southern fare I grew up on.
Mexican food is a big favorite with us so we try to grow whatever we can that would be ingredients in a typical meal in Mexico. Regional varieties are also a great interest and I love ordering seeds that are produced in the actual places where they are favorites. I order lots of seeds from Italy, many of which are narrowed down to specific places in Tuscany or Sicily. It really brings home my firm belief that I am a citizen of the world, not just my country.
Some regional and ethnic varieties simply won't grow in our climate but if you research their origins carefully, you can usually find a portion of our long spring/summer/fall season where they might thrive or a variety that could adapt somewhat. This takes a lot of research and a lot of patience.
If you are looking at a catalog, for instance, that is targeted at the New England states, many of their varieties just will not survive the heat and humidity here. However, if you pay close attention to our own seasonality you just might find a window of opportunity where you could give it a shot and see what happens. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work. If it does, you may have discovered a new family favorite.
While I am on the subject of growing for the right/wrong climate, I might pass on a word of advice. Because I grow things for a living, I am asked alot of gardening/growing questions. By far, the number one is about tomatoes. In this area, tomatoes are probably, like the rest of the country, the number one favorite things to grow at home. And why not? When they do well, they are easy to grow, prolific and taste 100 times better than store bought 'maters.
What could possibly be better and getting a fresh tomato off you own vine just before you eat it? That is a gastronomical delight that should not be missed. HOWEVER, you have to pick a variety that will actually produce something in the heat and humidity of our sometimes brutal summers or you won't be experiencing your own homegrown tomatoes.
The heirloom tomato boom is still going hot and heavy with such enticing varieties coming to market as Paul Robeson from Russia or Soldaki from Poland. Problem is that neither of these tomatoes will produce anything even remotely close to a bumper crop because they are cool, short season tomatoes.
And tomatoes don't like it too hot either. When the temps are in the 90's for days and days and days, the plants either stop blooming and/or setting fruit or the green tomatoes that they have produced just sit there and never turn. The secret to growing heirlooms is to see where they originated, determine if the climate there is close to your own and choose varieties that do grow successfully in similar conditions.
Another thing is to make sure you know whether or not you are growing a determinate, semi-determinate or an indeterminate variety. Determinate tomatoes make tomatoes for a short while and then stop producing. I don't know what semi-determinate means because I have only seen about 2 varieties that were designated as such and didn't really look any further. Indeterminate tomatoes will bear until frost if conditions are perfect, although harvests slow down as the plants get a little older. If you want to extend your harvest, you can always break off a "sucker" and root it for a new plant. The new plant will be an exact copy of the parent and will be younger and so, theoretically will bear stronger later.