CHICAGO — Prices for many fruits and vegetables eased this fall following a summer upswing, but don’t get used to paying less, some Chicago-area food retailers and restaurant owners say.

Smaller crops, expanding exports and a strengthening economy probably will push produce prices higher in 2011, the retailers said.

Christopher Ala, who owns Hemmingway’s Bistro in suburban Chicago, expects fruit and vegetables to eventually join the inflationary trend in meat and dairy prices.

“I foresee prices going up as people go out more,” said Ala, who recently raised his menu prices 3% to 4% to compensate for higher costs. “As demand increases, prices will go up.”

Apple, grape, lemon and pear prices rose this year as U.S. production declined amid poor weather in some areas. An index of prices received by fruit and tree nut growers rose 7% in October from the same month in 2009, reaching the highest level since December 2007, according to a Nov. 30 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Grower prices for fresh apples averaged about 35 cents a pound in October, up 12% from a year earlier, the USDA said. Grapes averaged 36.5 cents, up 16%, and pears averaged about 30 cents, up 26%.

Mark Wise, director of produce for Strack and Van Til, which has 31 grocery stores in the Chicago area, said increased competition from foreign buyers is contributing to higher prices.

“Prices are up a little bit, but not a lot,” Wise said. “Now we’re seeing growers getting top dollar going overseas. I hope it doesn’t continue, because our supply is down. There’s a lot more competition.”

Among vegetables, grower prices for tomatoes averaged 38.5 cents a pound in September, the most recent month with available data, according to the USDA. That was up 12% from a year earlier.

Iceberg lettuce and onion prices were up 9.6% and 52%, respectively.

At the retail level, fresh market vegetable prices from July through September were up 3% from year-earlier levels, though the prospect of improved growing weather and rising supplies could push prices lower later in the year, the USDA said in an Oct. 28 report.

Fruit and vegetable prices still haven’t climbed as much as beef, pork and milk this year and remain relatively cheap compared with other food categories.

The Consumer Price Index for fruits and vegetables fell 0.7% in October from September and was up 0.3% from October 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The broader CPI for food consumed at home was up 1.4% from a year earlier.

Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago Inc., a produce merchant at the city’s International Terminal Market is more sanguine on his price outlook.

“I don’t see a big change in pricing,” Pappas said. “Weather permitting, we’ll see consistent pricing in 2011.”