DOTT, PA. -- The first killing frost came later than usual this year and the farmer, longer in the tooth but not all that much the wiser, whispered a quiet thank-you.

It had been a good year from almost every standpoint, abetted by rain at most of the right times and not too much heat, but the farmer now was ready for it to end.

The tomatoes had lost their taste, the peppers were sizing down, the eggplant stopped stirring excitement and the cut flowers were fading fast. These plants knew, better than the farmer, that the time neared to pack it in for the winter.

In years past this was always a painful time for the farmer. He wanted just one more week of flowers, just 10 more bushels of tomatoes and one final flush of sweet basil. And then one more. He would tell friends that he was praying for frost to relieve his misery, but most of the time he said it in jest.

But this year was different. The farmer's serious outdoor growing season is defined by the last frost of spring and the first of fall. The last came on April 19, the first on Oct. 20, which made for an extraordinarily long season. The farmer was ready to stop.

The work seemed to go on forever and the plants kept producing. The abundance was so great and the time to gather it so short that for the first time, some things simply stayed in the fields. The farmer mourned, but events were beyond his control and he learned to become more accepting of the reality. He was glad to see it end.

Now, driven from his fields by the cold, the farmer begins to understand how right the early settlers were in putting aside a day to celebrate the bounty of the fall and to give thanks for it all.

The practice endures, of course, albeit in a new context. As we have become an urban nation, we continue to give our perfunctory thanks but many of us have lost sight of the reason for celebration.

Here in the country, the farmer each year seems to acquire a large sense of gratitude for the gifts of the soil and the seasons. He congratulates himself for the successes, often blames external forces or his own benightedness for the failures.

In truth, though, he has come to know that powers greater than he regulate his success. His satisfaction comes from knowing that these powers accept him as a partner and encourage him to become better at it by allowing his crops to thrive.

Partnership seems a proper term. Some farmers wage war on these powers, attempting to assert the force of man and science on the world of nature, never knowing that their successes will be short-lived. Some other farmers more wisely seek partnership with that world.

The books tell the farmer that the health of his soil depends on the presence of billions of micro-organisms, most of which we have not even identified. By adopting certain practices he can increase this population or, conversely, he can diminish it by ignoring common sense. The farmer gives thanks for being privy to the secret.

The books of an earlier day tell the farmer that his fortunes will rise or fall according to the ratio of earth worms, which are even better tillers of the soil than the huge green and yellow implements so common in farm country.

Where do these creatures come from? How do they get here? The farmer knows not, but they are here and he gives his thanks. And now that they are here, decidedly as partners, the farmer worries whenever he takes a tillage machine to the field. He fears disrupting their burrows and blocking the air channels they construct underground.

And what of the wondrous ladybugs? How do they know they are needed, how do they know when to arrive, and what is their mission? But they have come in squadrons, purposefully patrolling the fields for black-hat bugs they snatch from plants under attack.

The farmer watches them and he learns. Again the books did not tell him this would happen, but the ladybugs for the first time worked their magic on the dreaded potato beetles this year and eliminated the need for spraying costly organic compounds.

These and other mystical occurrences give cause for celebration and the giving of thanks for being allowed to partake as a partner. These are things that drive the farmer to want to do it again next season and again the following season.

Beyond these gifts of nature, the farmer understands that he would be nowhere without the support and encouragement of friends new and old and even perfect strangers who came into his life and contributed in their own special ways.

Reflecting on it, the farmer is in awe. During the year, more than 30 city people, most of them working solely for the joy of it, came to assist in one way or another. They did the thankless work, the work that makes backs hurt and calf muscles sore. They worked without complaint. They brought laughter, made the farm a dearer place, helped make it succeed.

Oh, there were times, the farmer must now confess, when their work and their ways exasperated him and made him want to do his work alone. How selfish and small he was, the farmer now realizes after the frosts have slowed him down, to sully their joy and their caring.

They, too, all of them, are members of the special partnership of man and nature that the farm creates, drawn by the same forces that the farmer is blessed to experience each day of the year. He regrets they are not here this week for the sharing, but he honors them just the same.

It is the time of thanksgiving.

Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.