From inventing world-leading machinery to running the nation’s largest flaxseed operation, the Nagorcka family are pioneering innovators.

Story By Gretel Sneath

Miniature John Deere tractors line the shelves of James Nagorcka’s office at Waltanna, hinting that their owner is a child at heart. Yet there’s more than nostalgia attached to some of these toys; James helped to design their full-sized equivalents. The story of how an Aussie farmer with no formal engineering training won the attention of global machinery manufacturers while virtually living under a rock would be legendary if James wasn’t so humble. “Tractors have always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a younger guy,” he says.
The Nagorcka family has farmed just outside of Hamilton, at the foot of Victoria’s majestic Southern Grampians, for more than 150 years. In 1960, James became the fourth generation to live off the land, cropping and raising fine wool Merinos and beef cattle in partnership with his father Percy.
A constant quest for improved efficiency prompted James to build his own articulated 120-horsepower 4WD tractor when he got tired of waiting for Massey Ferguson to release one. He bought a brand new Caterpillar engine, sourced a second-hand gearbox and axles, and set to work on a front and rear frame. “I learnt the trade simply by tinkering in the workshop, but I also read a lot, and I think I have a unique understanding of the process of machinery – I can visualise in my head what it will be and how it will work,” he says.
James’ wife, June, upholstered the interior, working late into the night while their three young children slept. “We didn’t tell too many people, because in those days if you told people you were building a tractor it didn’t go down too well,” James says. “But we were really pleased with its performance – it worked very well as a first-build-out-of-the-farm-workshop.”
James manufactured a second 175hp machine and took it to the 1977 Wimmera Machinery Field Days near Horsham, where a Mallee farmer snapped it up on the second day for $33,000. “I had never seen a cheque for so much money,” June says. “I married a farmer and thought that we would be farming for all of our lives, but it changed dramatically after that first tractor was sold.”
Between 1977 and 1992 James and his small team of staff manufactured more than 200 custom tractors ranging from 250 to 400hp. Most were sold direct to farms to ensure that the customer got exactly what they wanted, and operator comfort and low cabin noise levels became a trademark feature. Ford dealerships began ordering Waltanna tractors painted in their signature colours, and South Australia’s Woods and Forests department wanted logging machines.

This story excerpt is from Issue #100

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2015