With the exception of some areas in the southern fifths, the land in Novgorod province was not fertile. Shortage of grain forced the inhabitants of these lands to search for other sources of food: fishing, hunting, etc. Wheat was brought from south-eastern areas of Rus and on Volga and transported to Novgorod along Msta. In exchange, the goods obtained from the western neighbours were sent to the east: fabrics, metal goods (not weapon), wine, fruits. The western merchants were payed with raw materials. Northern forests were the source of furs: sables, foxes, beavers, etc. Hives gave honey and wax. On the banks of the White Sea, the sea animals were hunted for fat. The southern fifths produced flax and hemp. Raw silk was brought from the east. All these materials were sold to the west. So, the shortage of bread made trade the most important activity of Novgorod.
Very long time ago, the people from Novgorod explored the vast areas of northern and north-eastern Russia and even beyond Ural mountains. Of course, they could not capture these lands by force. They established colonies, bought lands from the local population and slowly became the owners of all the northern lands. Boyars sent their kholops to settle and to exploit these lands. They were followed by free men, who organized fishing and hunting grounds and sometimes robbed peaceful local population.
These people, called ushkuiniks (from ushkuy, a long narrow boat), knew very well what goods and from where can be brought to Novgorod and sold to the foreign merchants. Such ways went from north along Volkhov, and along Msta and Lovat from east and south. The caravans went from Novgorod to the Baltic sea along Volkhov and Neva to the Gulf of Finland, or along Shelon via Pskov to the Gulf of Riga. Along with the waterways, roads went westwards to Narva and Kolyvan (Tallin).
First, Novgorod traded mostly with the "Goths", as the merchants from Visby, Gotland, were called. With the growth of the Hanseatic League in XIII-XIV centuries, the merchants from the Northern Germany became frequent guests in Novgorod. Foreign merchants formed a closed community in Novgorod, lived according to their own code of laws and had their own churches. Due to the specifics of the trade, foreigners came to Novgorod more often than the Novgorod merchants visited other countries, and the western trade was shaped by the German merchants. On the other hand, Novgorod was the monopolist on the eastern trade routes. They visited lands along Volga, Kiev, Lithuanian lands and even the Khazar lands in the south east. Finds of Arab coins are frequent in the lands controlled by Novgorod, which proves solid trade connections with the muslim countries.